How the Plain Dealer gives readers a crack at balancing Ohio’s budget

There is no patent on a good idea, an editor friend used to say. The richest source of ideas for your newspaper can often be . . . other newspapers.

So last November, when editors here saw a feature in The New York Times that let readers calculate the mix of cuts and tax increases it would take to balance the federal budget, they decided doing something similar on Ohio’s budget would be a great service — and great fun — for Plain Dealer readers.

Metro Editor Chris Quinn wasted no time putting together the plan. He enlisted the expertise of the number crunchers from the Center for Community Solutions, a nonprofit organization focused on social service and policy, and assigned reporter Aaron Marshall of the paper’s Columbus bureau to come up with an array of choices from which readers could decide where to get the money to balance the budget.

You can see the results of their efforts in Section A of today’s Plain Dealer, where Marshall lists 41 items that would either cut expenses or add funds through taxes. With each, he provides arguments for and against the idea.

The rest is up to you — either grab a pad and pencil and do the math yourself, or plug your choices into the online budget tool.

Either way, your calculations must come out to roughly $8 billion, because that’s the difference between the cost of the existing state programs that Gov. John Kasich inherited when he took office in January, and the amount of money he predicts he will have to spend for the next two-year budget.

The exercise is more than just play, as the Times’ federal budget calculator was, because in Ohio the budget that the governor submits on Tuesday must balance. So whatever choices you make, you’ve got to find that $8 billion, one way or another.

“Our goal was to raise the level of the discussion,” said Quinn. “You look at what’s happening with the debate over SB 5, and all you’ve got is people screaming about it, and the loudest screamer gets the attention.”

“We wanted to take the rhetoric out of the budget discussion, and give people an idea of what the choices are,” he said. “Every place you look it’s going to hurt, and there are plusses and minuses to everything you do. Ohioans are going to have to sacrifice, and this is an ideal way to show that.”

Quinn didn’t go in with an idea of a set number of items. “The only goal was that we needed to give people at least twice, and preferably three times, as much as they would need, so they would have some real choices,” he said.

Marshall went him one better. The 41 ideas add up to $31,488,000 — almost four times the target number.

Putting all that information together was a complicated undertaking, and Marshall said he told his editors that “if you guys want me to do that, you’ve got to let me have a little fun with it.”

They did and he did, as you can see from his Page One introduction to the Budget Calculator, where he compares trying to get people to read budget stories to getting them to eat their vegetables: “You know it’s good for you, but who wants to actually do it?” he asks.

Even in his explanations you’ll find some humor, as where he wrote that a reason for not increasing the state tax on beer was that “cheap beer is a fundamental right of all Americans.” And under the suggestion that Ohio extend the state sales tax to cover contract lobbyists, he wrote that “It screws over lobbyists. Enough said.”

“That’s one of my favorites,” he said. “If there was ever a group that deserves to pay taxes, it’s those guys.”

No attempt was made to outguess the governor, or to make recommendations.

“There are options here that we know have absolutely no chance of being in the budget,” said Marshall. “Raising taxes, for example. But just because the governor signed a no-new-taxes pledge, that doesn’t mean our readers did, so that choice is in there.”

The third leg of the stool on this project was Peter Zicari, a former reporter and copy editor whose interest in math and computers has made him one of the newsroom’s go-to guys in formatting internal computer operations and online presentations. When I talked to him last week, he was working on a way to allow readers to print their results and submit them to so they can be compiled for a story about how readers’ decisions differed from — or coincided with — the governor’s.

Each of the little blocks in Zicari’s online display represents 8 million bucks. There are 1,000 of them. As the man said, suddenly we’re talking about real money here.

This column was originally published in the Cleveland Plain Dealer on March 13, 2011.

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