America's Legislators Back to School Program
Lesson Plan--Quick Reference Guide
Legislators in the Classroom: Teaching Democracy Appreciation
A Legislative Appropriations Committee Simulation
Prepared by Alan Rosenthal as a project of the Eagleton Institute of Politics of Rutgers University. The author can be reached at firstname.lastname@example.org or (732) 828-2210, ext. 251.
"Dividing Up the Pot-And Paying for It"
Each year your state legislature reviews and adopts a budget, which specifies the money the state will be collecting (mainly from taxes) and the money the state will be spending on a variety of programs and services for its citizens. In your state, as well as most others, the governor prepares a detailed budget, which he or she submits to the legislature. The legislature may change items or increase or reduce amounts in the governor's budget before it enacts a budget bill (or bills). But the legislature has a constitutional responsibility to balance the state budget, so that the total amount to be spent does not exceed the total amount to be collected.
In your state legislature, the appropriations committees have to decide on the state budget for the following year, and then make a recommendation to the house and senate. You will adopt the role of a member of the house appropriations committee and serve on one of the committee's four subcommittees--health, education, welfare, and homeland security--which together comprise the full committee. Each subcommittee has control over the budget in its designated area.
These four subcommittees have requests from the governor for expenditure increases of $1 billion over the previous year's budget, mainly because of important new programs that the governor wants to have started in each of these areas. Below are descriptions of the requests for additional funding in each subcommittee's area.
$300 million in new funds for two programs--prescription drugs for senior citizens and pre-natal care for young mothers. The public, according to statewide polls, supports both initiatives (the first somewhat more than the second).
$300 million increase for pre-school programs throughout the state, but with much of it going to schools where children are not performing well. Research suggests that early intervention has positive results. Polls indicate public support for these programs.
$200 million more for a reorganization of the state division of youth and family services. It was found that children were abused under its care and its programs were failing. The additional money will pay for more caseworkers, closer monitoring and summer camps. These recommendations, polls show, have substantial public support, but not quite as much as the prescription drug and pre-school programs.
Homeland Security Subcommittee
$200 million additional funds to increase security in the state. According to a study completed by a blue-ribbon commission, federal programs are insufficient for the potential threats facing the state. Bridges, tunnels and highways need substantial improvements in security. A plan has been adopted; implementation of the plan depends on funding. There are no poll data available, but members of the commission believe the public is very supportive.
The problem, however, is that the budget submitted by the governor is facing a shortfall in revenues because of an economic recession. Tax revenues to the state are down, but the budget is required by the state constitution to be in balance. Therefore, either budget expenditures will have to be cut or taxes increased, or some combination of the two.
The appropriations committee must cut $500 million from the new initiatives or raise $500 million in taxes. The only tax that can possibly be raised is the sales tax. But polls show that the public is opposed to increasing the sales tax (and more opposed to higher income taxes). Only 25 percent support an increase in the sales tax, 60 percent oppose it, while the remaining 15 percent are undecided.
Increasing the sales tax by two pennies on the dollar will raise the $500 million needed to balance the budget. Increasing the sales tax by one penny will raise $250 million, or half of what is needed to balance the budget, necessitating $250 million in cuts. No tax increase would mean that $500 million would have to be cut from the $1 billion in new initiatives. The cuts can be distributed in any way among the four subcommittees.
Your visiting legislator will act as the chair of the appropriations committee during the discussion of how to balance the budget. During the committee meeting, the chair may permit the subcommittee members to meet and decide on subcommittee positions. During the meeting, committee members may speak or make motions only when they are recognized by the chair. Remember, each of the four subcommittees must defend its programs, but the full committee must reach a settlement that results in a balanced budget.
The alternatives are:
1. Raise the sales tax by two pennies, so no cuts are necessary;
2. Raise the sales tax by one penny, so $250 million has to be cut;
3. Do not raise the sales tax, so $500 million has to be cut.
Your job, like that of legislators, is to:
- Be responsive to your constituents;
- Take into account the needs of the state;
- Attend to the demands of interest groups;
- Work with your colleagues on the subcommittee, committee, and in the house (as well as the senate);
- Balance the state budget.