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Citizens Compromise to Cut Trillions from Federal Deficit

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INTRO: Can citizens do what Congress cannot? That was the challenge put to Teton County residents by the Concord Coalition, a non-partisan group that aims to raise public awareness about the federal deficit. The coalition invited citizens to play Congress for a day to cut the federal deficit and move the nation closer to a balanced budget. Rebecca Huntington has more.

REBECCA HUNTINGTON: Inside a spacious hall at St. John's Episcopal Church in Jackson, 40 people are split up into small groups, seated at round tables. They all have workbooks to walk them through a series of budget decisions. They have two hours to make tough choices ranging from cutting spending for everything from the arts to national missile defense. And to decide whether or not to reform the tax code, Medicare and social security. This evening's event is being sponsored by the county's Republican and Democratic parties. Among those participating are Marylee White and her husband, Charlie Thomas.

MARYLEE WHITE: I guess it was Friday night date night. My husband and I are of course very interested, we have two children, and it doesn't seem that difficult to us. So we wanted to understand better what the complications are.

HUNTINGTON: At White's table, there are three republicans and three democrats -- a possible recipe for gridlock. But Democrat Stephan Abrams doesn't think party affiliation should get in the way...

STEPHAN ABRAMS: I feel that unfortunately people who are in the elected positions to make the decisions are making decisions for party lines instead of what needs to happen for the country as a whole.

HUNTINGTON: Before getting started, the Concord Coalition's National Political Director Phil Smith has a few instructions.

PHIL SMITH: So you got to keep in mind politics because if this is a congressional role-playing exercise, one of the things you got to keep in the back of your mind if this is going to be realistic, is will you be reelected.

HUNTINGTON: With that, the groups start debating whether to cut spending on government programs. White's table quickly finds common ground, unanimously agreeing to end subsidies for farmers and fossil fuel industries.

GROUP: I vote yes....

HUNTINGTON: But they also get bogged down...

WHITE: Eliminate the $1 dollar bill... 

CHARLIE THOMAS: I don't think voters will like that.

HUNTINGTON: As they debate the merits of saving three billion dollars by replacing paper dollars with coins, organizer Phil Smith plays the lobbyist.

SMITH: I work for the metals industry and I'd be very pleased for you to vote for that, might even have a PAC check for you at the end of this exercise...

HUNTINGTON: But it soon becomes clear that such decisions are small change compared to reforming the tax code, Medicare and social security. After some debate, they decide to raise the retirement age for Social Security from 65 to 67. But their biggest decision comes when they reform the tax code.

ABRAMS: It's not 9-9-9, it's 10-16-26.

HUNTINGTON: They overhaul the tax code by creating three simple brackets to tax incomes at 10, 16 and 26 percent based on income levels. The proposal also eliminates tax breaks. The coalition estimates such a reform would raise more than a trillion dollars in new revenue.

PAUL HANSEN: Is there a group ready to come up and report?

HUNTINGTON: One group says they found a way to cut more than four trillion dollars from the deficit. That's about the same amount recommended by the national bipartisan commission led by former Senator Al Simpson, a Wyoming Republican, and Erskine Bowles, a Democrat. The Concord Coalition's Rocky Mountain Director Paul Hansen applauds their effort...

HANSEN: You chose not to do tax reform, but you had savings in annual spending, in military spending, in health care and social security and you found new revenue. Great!

HUNTINGTON: Most of the other groups also found ways to cut the federal deficit by several trillion dollars - though they all did it a little differently. T.R. Pierce, chairman of the county Republican party, thought the evening's results were pretty impressive.

T.R. PIERCE: I was pleased tonight to see that we were able to come together as citizens, not as Democrats or as Republicans, and to do what's best for our children and our grandchildren. And that was great; it was bipartisan support for cuts and for increases in revenue.

HUNTINGTON: White agrees.

WHITE: Basically, it was just fun, and I'd like to think that our Congressional representatives can forget about reelection for a change and just do what's right for our country.

HUNTINGTON: Indeed, most groups here say they probably would not get reelected -- a common refrain that the Paul Hansen hears when conducting these exercises across the nation.

HANSEN: At the end of this exercise, most of the people who do it conclude that they could not be reelected for doing the right thing. It's funny Al Simpson said the same thing to me he doesn't think he could be elected today.

HUNTINGTON: For Wyoming Public Radio, I'm Rebecca Huntington in Jackson.

A multi-media journalist, Rebecca Huntington is a regular contributor to Wyoming Public Radio. She has reported on a variety of topics ranging from the National Parks, wildlife, environment, health care, education and business. She recently co-wrote the one-hour, high-definition documentary, The Stagecoach Bar: An American Crossroads, which premiered in 2012. She also works at another hub for community interactions, the Teton County Library where she is a Communications and Digital Media Specialist. She reported for daily and weekly newspapers in Montana, Idaho, Washington, Oregon and Wyoming for more than a decade before becoming a multi-media journalist. She completed a Ted Scripps Fellowship in Environmental Journalism at the University of Colorado in 2002. She has written and produced video news stories for the PBS series This American Land (thisamericanland.org) and for Assignment Earth, broadcast on Yahoo! News and NBC affiliates. In 2009, she traveled to Guatemala to produce a series of videos on sustainable agriculture, tourism and forestry and to Peru to report on the impacts of extractive industries on local communities.
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