Finance committee

Published 10:31 pm Wednesday, December 14, 2011

Crunching numbers: Roger Barden, left, crunches numbers to see if he and his classmates, Chelsea Fay, center, and Trevor Ward have cut enough spending from the federal budget to make up the $1.27 trillion deficit during an activity in their government class at Lakeland High School.

Students balance the nation’s deficit in time for lunch

Lakeland High School seniors Georgia Hill, Regina Howell and LaNeisha Gain had a big problem on their hands Wednesday.

It took compromise, hard work and diligence, but they managed it. They balanced the federal budget and accounted for the $1.27 trillion deficit in an hour and a half.

India Meissel’s government class broke into groups and was presented with the issue that has plagued Congress for years.

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Meissel wrote on the board, “You must cut $1.27 trillion,” and she gave them three options: cut discretionary spending, such as defense; cut mandatory spending, like Social Security; or raise additional revenue through taxes.

Of course, the students could combine any of those options to reach their objective.

“I knew they would wrestle with this,” Meissel said. “And I wanted to put it in front of them and say, ‘You’re going to be a citizen soon and not only will you need to understand budgeting for yourself, but see what Congress has to do.’”

She said she has done the activity with two groups of adults before, but this was the first time she tried it with students.

“It’s interesting to see what the students cut,” Meissel said. “It also shows the students’ backgrounds.”

Most of the groups met the objective, but it was no easy task.

Soon after Hill, Howell and Gain starting their deliberations, they reached a roadblock.

In searching for places to trim fat, Howell and Hill zeroed in on NASA, but Gain thought it was a mistake.

“I don’t think we should cut NASA,” she said.

“We don’t need NASA to survive,” Hill said. “We are in desperate times, and it’s not going to help us pay our bills.”

After rigorous debate, the girls decided to move on and worry about NASA later in their discussion.

But it wasn’t long before it came up again during talks about whether or not to cut spending for the Corporation for National and Community Service.

“You would rather fund (community service) than fund NASA,” Gain exclaimed after her partners told her they shouldn’t touch the agency’s funding.

While all of the groups had their share of gripes, many of them agreed one federal agency definitely needed to lose some of its funding— the Department of Housing and Urban Development.

Gain, Hill and Howell agreed with very little debate that Housing and Urban Development was a place to find savings.

“I think people take advantage of Section 8 Housing,” Gain said.

She said she thinks the department needs money but should get less than it does right now.

Meissel said the students tended to have a narrow focus on some of the departments.

For example, she said, many of them zeroed in on Housing and Urban Development because they have heard of people manipulating the government housing system.

“They are aware of things going on,” Meissel said. “They might not know where it falls under the federal budget, though.”

Meanwhile, only one of the groups decided to cut defense spending.

“A lot of kids didn’t want to cut defense spending because they have a parent who is in the military,” Meissel said.

Chelsea Fay, Roger Barden and Trevor Ward were the group that decided to cut defense by 12 percent and funding for overseas conflicts by 10 percent.

“We don’t need to be over in other people’s business,” Fay said. “We need to defend our own country.”

Fay’s group also cut spending for the State Department, Housing and Urban Development, the Department of Transportation and NASA.

“We’re in debt, and other countries that are in debt aren’t spending money on (space exploration),” Fay said.

At the end of the class, some of the groups presented their proposals.

One group had managed to make $47 billion for the country in addition to cutting the deficit, but it was at the cost of upsetting the other students with their plan to raise the gas tax and cut spending from the Department of Labor.

Another group barely made a dent in combating the budget shortfall by only cutting $100 billion because they couldn’t come to a consensus about how to find the funds.

At the end of the day, Meissel said, her students impressed her.

“They didn’t give up,” she said. “I’m proud of the fact they kept trying. Even the group that didn’t come to a compromise didn’t throw their arms up and stop trying to figure it out.”

Tomorrow, the students will be faced with an even bigger challenge. They will have to use their group plans to work with the other students to balance the budget as a class.

“You thought this was hard,” Meissel told them. “This was nothing.”