All the discussion around Minnesota’s $5 billion budget deficit seems to suggest that Minnesotans face an either/or choice of how to understand the budget: “Government and Taxes Are Good” vs. “Government and Taxes Are Bad.”
Moving the budget discussion beyond rigid ideological positions is long overdue. Our discussion should focus on what we want our budget priorities to be.
Minnesota’s Constitution says that “government is instituted for the security, benefit and protection of the people.” It is time to take a hard look at revenues, expenditures, exemptions and regulations and ask: Does this burden or benefit promote the interests of the people, or does this promote a special interest that has little to do with the common good?
We should face a difficult budget year with flexibility in approach and specific priorities as our goals.
As we think about what the priorities should be, it is good to remember what the Roman Catholic and Evangelical Lutheran Church in America bishops of Minnesota noted in their open letter to legislators last month: How we treat the most vulnerable is the most telling measure of how we care for one another. A budget is more than just political ideology in spreadsheet form; it is a moral document that has a real impact on real people.
Investing in people
Caring for others does not have to mean out-of-control spending. But while services and programs that invest in vulnerable people should be efficient, we must realize that efficiency is impossible if funding levels become completely inadequate.
Not all returns on investments in the common good are economic. Some investments are in people, such as caring for disabled and elderly Minnesotans in a way that respects their dignity. Other investments have both human and economic returns, such as helping working people in a state of economic crisis to get back on their feet, or ensuring that low-income people have access to affordable health care.
Instead of always looking first to cut services for the poor and vulnerable whenever a budget crisis looms, perhaps we should look first at programs and exemptions that benefit specific interest groups.
Do government subsidies that are intended to create jobs actually create new jobs? Do tax credits and tax exemptions actually promote intended policies, or do they merely shelter wealth for a select few? All decisions to spend taxpayer dollars should show an investment in clear priorities and an expected outcome that is related to those priorities.
In their letter, the bishops noted that the current state budget deficit presents “an enormous challenge that suggests both dollar savings and increased income to achieve a balanced budget that avoids devastating cuts in services to vulnerable people.”
Let’s encourage our legislators to approach budget negotiations with all budget balancing options on the table so that the focus can be on priorities. Providing basic needs and essential services for the vulnerable in ways that affirm life and dignity should come before any non-essential goals.
You can take action by joining the Minnesota Catholic Advocacy Network at http://www.mncatholic.org/. There are also two upcoming Joint Religious Legislative Coalition interfaith vigils at which members of faith communities will be calling for compassionate and balanced stewardship of the state budget: 7 p.m. May 4 on the steps of the Cathedral of St. Mary in St. Cloud; and 2 p.m. May 11 at the Floyd B. Olson Statue on the State Capitol lawn (southwest of the main entrance) in St. Paul.
Katie Conlin the Minnesota Catholic Conference’s interim social concerns director.