Playing The Budget Surplus Game

Last year’s endless budget impasse demonstrated that it can be just as tough to decide how to spend an abundance of state revenue as it is to parcel out budget cuts. But a Brookline entrepreneur and a Boston University law professor say the four-month logjam might have been avoided if Gov. Paul Cellucci, Senate President Thomas Birmingham, and House Speaker Thomas Finneran had sat down to a game of “Surviving the Surplus,” a role-play exercise they developed to teach lawmakers how to play nicely in budget negotiations.

“If they had played this game and had these skills last year, the budget standoff would have been resolved much earlier,” says Burnstein, president of Negotiator Pro Co.

Burnstein and Robert Burdick, a professor at Boston University Law School whose specialty is negotiation, have developed more than 35 versions of their instructional game. Used by corporations and graduate schools nationwide since 1995 to help players hone the art of the deal, the game carries different names for different scenarios. “Avoiding a Strike” simulates collective bargaining between a large university and its clerical union. “Siting a Transfer Station” takes place in a residential neighborhood in which a trash-removal company has proposed to locate a solid waste facility. “Surviving a Plane Crash” has passengers and crew weighing life-or-death survival strategies.

But the one tailor-made for Massachusetts’s embarrassment-of-riches woes is “Surviving the Surplus.” In this game, six players are each assigned an identity: governor, president of the Senate, speaker of the House, chairmen of the House and Senate committees on ways and means, and secretary of finance. In the course of an hour, the players wrangle over how to spend an imaginary $500 million surplus, representing 5 percent of their bogus state budget. They must agree–unanimously–on what to do with the money. Competing interests include returning the money to the voters, improving public education, expanding prison capacity, and so on.

The game’s players wrangle over how to spend an imaginary surplus.

In addition to an identity, each player is given a “personality profile,” a set of contextual “facts,” and a “bottom line” describing the terms under which that player would support a budget deal. Each player’s information sheet also sets out the points the player can earn if the final proposal contains various elements. Creative ideas earn extra points, regardless of whose idea they were.

“The game,” says Burdick, “sort of tests the idea of whether you as an individual are better off working for your own interests, or better off actually helping the group successfully address this problem.” That means more than getting your own way, he says. “Someone who’s really, really good is both skillful competitively and skillful cooperatively.”

Skill in working cooperatively was nowhere in evidence during last year’s logjam, which kept the 2000 budget up in the air a third of the way into the fiscal year. But with the Legislature scheduled to end the current session by the end of July, no repeat performance is possible. So maybe it’s not too late for legislative leaders to benefit from a round of play. Says Burdick: “As an institution, I don’t have any doubt the Legislature could benefit from some thoughtful, systematic thinking to improve how they solve any of the problems that they have to solve.”

Schools, universities, and nonprofit organizations all over the country have bought “Surviving the Surplus,” which is available by phone (800-448-3308) and over the Internet (www.negotiatorpro.com). A game packet for eight players goes for $24.95, but Burnstein offers specials and volume discounts.

Meet the Author
State legislators from around the nation have played “Surviving the Surplus” on at least two occasions: at the annual meeting of the National Conference of State Legislatures in 1998 and last fall at NCSL’s annual leadership institute. At least one Massachusetts official was scheduled to attend the 70-person, invitation-only seminar in Aspen, Colo., last October but didn’t make it because he was embroiled in some real-life budget negotiations.

The missing lawmaker was none other than Speaker Finneran.