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A balanced budget is good politics. Actually balancing the budget is not.

A case in point: Rep. Jim Matheson and Saratoga Springs Mayor Mia Love exchanged criticisms Monday that the other is not serious about balancing the budget, but the math for either's proposal seems fuzzy.

"The idea that we're going to balance the budget and not cause anybody pain and only give away more tax cuts to people and only cut quote 'waste, fraud and abuse' is nuts. It can't happen. The math doesn't work," said Thad Hall, a political science professor at the University of Utah. "None of these people can talk about reality because the moment they do they're going to get killed."

While Love has focused heavily on cutting government spending, putting out a list of more than $430 billion in proposed cuts, both she and Matheson have proposed extending tax cuts and lowering overall tax rates in a way that would make eliminating the $1.2 trillion deficit difficult, if not impossible.

"You could do it entirely with cutting government spending, but then you're talking about deep cuts that hurt folks," said Roberton Williams, a senior fellow at the Brookings Institution's Tax Policy Center.

Both candidates say they would eliminate deductions and loopholes, but neither would touch two of the largest deductions for mortgage interest and charitable giving.

"The rhetoric that surrounds this is much different than the reality because the reality of this is that the only way to balance the budget is do some of both" cutting and tax increases, Hall said.

Love criticized Matheson Monday for voting four times to increase the nation's debt limit by a total of nearly$7 trillion.

"He is not who he used to be. He has not been a check and balance on [President] Barack Obama on the issue that matters most: reckless spending," she said. "We cannot afford to leave our children a legacy of debt and dependency."

Love said she would vote against any debt-limit increase, saying that increasing the limit is what led to a downgrade in the United States' credit rating. What is needed, she said, are "structural changes to control Congress and its spending."

But Williams said the downgrade was more about fear Congress might not raise the debt ceiling than the actual debt itself.

"I think it was the uncertainty, concern that Congress would not stand behind what they had already voted to spend and tax" that led to the downgrade, he said. "I don't think there were major concerns the U.S. would default on the debt."

Longer term, he said, there are "major concerns that if we don't get our fiscal house in order, we'll find ourselves with unsustainable levels" of debt.

Whoever is victorious in November, one of the first challenges will be dealing with "fiscal Armageddon" — a mix of $530 billion in tax cuts that are scheduled to expire and $1.2 trillion in automatic cuts over nine years set to take effect.

The Congressional Budget Office said recently the combination of the two would likely plunge the nation back into a recession.

Matheson voted for the Budget Control Act, which set up the "super committee" to cut the budget and enacted the trigger on the $1.2 trillion in automatic cuts. Matheson said Monday he hopes Congress will step in and make surgical cuts, but the cuts must be made. "Congress should not go back on its word," he said.

Love said she thought from the start that the committee was a bad idea and opposes the automatic cuts in the so-called sequestration, particularly those on defense spending.

Both Love and Matheson favor extending the $530 billion in tax cuts, including the Bush-era tax cuts and tax cuts passed as part of the Obama stimulus bill.

"What you really need to do is get rid of big chunks of federal spending and raise more revenue," said Williams. "And there's one side that says, 'We'll never raise more revenue,' and there's another said that says, 'You can cut some spending, but we're not going to cut entitlements.' You're basically saying we're not going to give in on the things we have to give in on to solve the problem." —

Budget balancing battle plans

The Love Plan • Love published a list of proposed spending cuts earlier this year totaling about $440 billion in the near-term, although she has been hammered by Matheson for proposals to eliminate college student loans, grants to local police departments and the halving the Earned Income Tax Credit, a break for lower-income working families.

Love supports the budget plan put forward by Wisconsin Rep. Paul Ryan — now the vice presidential nominee — and says it could go further. She backs making Medicare a fixed benefit, meaning seniors would get a set allowance each month for their health care costs rather than the more comprehensive coverage they receive today.

Matheson Plan • Matheson has said he supports the bipartisan budget plan put forward by the Simpson-Bowles Commission as a framework for the budget debate.

That plan includes raising the eligibility age for Social Security, capping government expenditures, $200 billion in cuts, and eliminating government subsidized student loans — a proposal that Love has made and Matheson has denounced.

Matheson said controlling health care costs will be key to getting federal spending under control, as Medicare and Medicaid and CHIP make up 21 percent of the federal budget, but "there is no silver bullet" to do that.

Matheson voted for Rep. Jason Chaffetz's "Cut, Cap and Balance" bill, which cut spending in the current year, capped it in future years and supported a balanced budget amendment, and continues to support the budget amendment. Mia Love is up 49 percent to 43 percent for Rep. Jim Matheson in the 4th Congressional District contest, according to a newly released Dan Jones & Assoc. poll commissioned by KSL and the Deseret News.