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Tough Balancing Act : Under the auspices of a grass-roots group, regular folks participate in a federal budget exercise--and find they are able to make hard choices.

SPECIAL TO THE TIMES

In a few hours on a recent Saturday morning, 20 San Fernando Valley men and women accomplished a feat that has eluded Congress for years: They balanced the national budget and found money to start paying off the nation’s $5.2-trillion debt.

The participants found the debt-slashing exercise at least as fast-paced and mentally rigorous as a weekend tennis match. They even had a coach, Bob Lefton, a 52-year-old retired Woodland Hills accountant, who exhorted them to keep their blue pencils sharply pointed to the bottom line.

“Somebody’s got to do it!” Lefton barked. Then he put his hand to his heart and invoked the image of the participants’ grandchildren--the folks who will be paying society’s debts one day.

That did it. The Scrooge factor kicked in as the group--participants in a nationwide grass-roots, deficit-cutting movement called the Concord Coalition--pored over item after budget item, each a real cost-cutting recommendation from the Congressional Budget Office.

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Space station? Slash! Block grants? Cut by 25%! Pay raise for federal workers? History! And taxes? Tax it all: alcohol, tobacco, energy, pollution!

It was a bracing, albeit typical morning for the Concord Coalition, which uses this unique role-playing exercise to teach voters and voters-to-be about the complexities of the federal budget. Mainly through word of mouth, the group recruits citizens from high school to retirement age for the privilege of learning to rein in spending and cut the deficit.

The Coalition’s San Fernando Valley chapter, established six months ago, has been winning converts through such workshops. About 100 local people have participated, and Coalition members hope they will send a message to their elected officials that they’re ready to make sacrifices to reduce federal debt.

The workshops have a way, organizers say, of sweeping away easy preconceptions about the nation’s budget problems.

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“The Republicans usually say, ‘It’s waste, fraud and abuse.’ And the Democrats say, ‘It’s all defense spending,’ ” said Douglas Wolf, the Coalition’s state coordinator.

After the exercise, the mostly retired, middle-income participants see who’s really getting the money: wealthy retirees who are benefiting from years of cost-of-living increases to Social Security--benefits that take growing chunks of their children’s and grandchildren’s paychecks.

The pressure to maintain this mushrooming entitlement system will break the nation’s bank in the next century if something isn’t done now, Coalition organizers say. Fewer people are being born and more are living longer. The expanding elderly population will place a greater and greater burden on a shrinking younger population.

Since the Coalition was founded in 1992 by retired Republican Sen. Warren Rudman and Democratic Sen. Paul Tsongas, hundreds and perhaps thousands of Americans have done the deficit-cutting exercise, said Martha Phillips, the Coalition’s executive director in Washington, D.C.

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It can transform participants.

“When we’re involved in something, we get more from it,” said Estheranne Billings, a retired Encino sports columnist and art teacher who took part in the recent San Fernando Valley session. “We have to think and make a decision.”

In Coalition workshops, people face a numbing array of programs with price tags only Carl Sagan could love: billions and billions. They mix it up with those of different political persuasions and balance complex, conflicting priorities in a matter of minutes using scanty information.

The scenario isn’t far from what a real member of Congress goes through, said organizer Lefton.

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“You are like Congress,” he told his group. “It only gets the information it’s given--whether by lobbyists or staffers. It really is amazing how little input Congress has before they go to the floor.”

The Coalition exercise lasts about three hours. But it is based on a four-hour version created by the Washington, D.C.-based Committee for a Responsible Federal Budget. Coalition Executive Director Phillips said her group shortened the session because it was hard to find people willing to give four hours to work on the national budget.

California is one of the Coalition’s busiest states, with some 14,000 members in about 30 chapters. The goal is to have a chapter for each of the state’s 52 congressional districts.

Valley organizers have appealed to retirees and to students at Cal State Northridge and at least one local high school.

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In December, Rudman, Tsongas and other fiscal experts converged on the Valley at a special deficit conference at CSUN.

For 77-year-old Bob Achen from Van Nuys, sacrificing a weekend morning to deficit-busting was a worthwhile task, an investment in his grandchildren’s future.

“I lived through the 1929 crash. I remember it vividly,” he said. “It will happen again if we don’t do something.”

* Louise Yarnall is a Van Nuys writer.

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WHERE AND WHEN

What: Debtbusters Workshop.

Location: Saturday at the Country Inn at Calabasas, 23627 Calabasas Road; Jan. 28 at the Van Nuys State Office Building Auditorium, 6150 Van Nuys Blvd., Van Nuys.

Hours: 8:45 to 11:45 a.m.

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Price: $2.

Call: (818) 222-4773 for Saturday’s workshop; (818) 786-1068 for Jan. 28.


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