Jacksonites Take Bite Out of Nation's Budget

Published Feb 1, 2012. By Emma Breysse .

“[T]he important thing is that we got it done anyway, and I don't know why Congress can't do the same thing.“

­ Erick Johnson, former small-business owner, on the tough choices he faced in an exercise that simulated cutting the federal budget

At Concord Coalition event, valley residents slash defense and entitlement programs,

When about 50 Jackson Hole residents set out to cut the federal de? cit, they almost all managed to slash $5 trillion over 10 years. The Concord Coalition gathered residents together Friday night to make their own decisions about the federal budget — what event organizer Paul Hansen called “the most political document in the world.” The coalition is a nonpartisan nonpro? t focused on educating the public about ? scal policy.

Hansen, who is the Rocky Mountain regional director for the coalition, said he’s found that when “real people” get together to tackle the nation’s de? cit, they often make better progress than their elected of? cials. They aren’t afraid of offending constituents and making tough spending cuts.

“[T]he important thing is that we got it done anyway, and I don't know why Congress can't do the same thing,“ said participant Erik Johnson, a former small-business owner from Jackson.

Currently, federal expenditures reach $3.6 trillion per year, while revenue comes in at just $2.3 trillion, for a yearly deficit of $1.3 trillion. Hansen used budget projections taken from the Congressional Budget Office that show the federal budget $4.7 trillion in the red over the next 10 years for the accounting exercise.

On Friday at St. John's Episcopal Church, almost every group slashed defense and entitlement programs, while reforming tax law to raise more revenue.Groups forced to be ruthless Participants formed groups and consulted a list of decisions for their group to make. Each decision came with a value showing how much it would remove or add from the federal deficit based on estimates from the Congressional Budget Office.

The participants were relatively even when it came to political ideology.Every participant was white and about two thirds were male. Most were safely categorized as over 30.

However, regardless of the makeup of the groups, when it came time to present results, most representatives called their decisions “ruthless.“

Hansen said most of the decisions made matched the ones recommended by the Simpson-Bowles Deficit Reduction Plan that was narrowly voted down by the U.S. Senate in December 2010.

The Concord Coalition brought former Sen. Al Simpson, R-Wyo, the “Simpson“ of the committee, to speak in Jackson in June.

Every group took more than $1 trillion out of the nation's defense budget, and most did the same to health care and social security.

Only one group did not opt to create more revenue by reforming the tax code and eliminating tax cuts.

“It was interesting to me how much trouble I had making a decision when I consider myself a decisive person,“ said participant Patti Roser, an accountant from Moose. “But we were definitely very interested in cutting.“

Choices likely to be unpopular Roser said she did notice that the health care and social security decisions her group made would probably affect younger generations more than their own -most of her group was 50 or older.

A few commonalities did emerge.For example, nearly every group voted to eliminate the one-dollar bill, a move projected to reduce the 10-year deficit by $3 billion, and most were hard on education programs.

Most also raised the eligibility ages for Medicare and Social Security, saving $125 billion and $120 billion respectively.

There was an even split over repealing the 2010 Affordable Care Act, which added $124 billion to the deficit.

None of the groups felt their decisions would make them popular with voters.

“I would say if you're sent to Washington to do a job, do that job before you worry about being re-elected,“ Johnson said. “That's the hardest thing to realistically simulate, I thought, that worry about being re-elected.“

While Johnson said he generally votes Republican, he isn't impressed by either political party's ability to compromise on the federal budget, which contributed to his desire to give it a shot himself.

“It was really for me a new experience,“ Johnson said of the exercise.“Not writing budgets, but doing it in a public venue where I couldn't just make the call.“