State Budget as Moral Statement
by Christopher Dodson
Executive Director
North Dakota Catholic Conference
November 2006

By most accounts, the State of North Dakota will have a $527 million surplus when the current biennial budget ends June 30, 2007. For a state of its size, that is a significant amount of money.

When state legislators come to Bismarck in January, they will have to decide what to do with that money, plus the expected income for the next biennium. Legislators, interest groups, and political parties have already made proposals about what to do with some of that money. Reconfiguring or adding money to public education figures into most of the proposals, as does providing property tax relief. Others advocate setting the money aside for times when the state’s economy may not be as good.

I do not intend to address the merits of those proposals at this time. Rather, I propose that we take a step back and look at the principles that should guide the state as it prepares the next budget and the criteria by which we should judge all the proposals.

A state’s budget is a moral statement. It reflects how we respond to the needs of our neighbors and how we prioritize those needs. Policymakers should consider matters such as economic justice, social responsibility, human dignity, and concern for the common good when creating a budget. Of particular concern should be programs ensuring the health and safety of North Dakota’s children and the poor, elderly, sick, and addicted.

Unfortunately, the final budget often looks more like a hodgepodge of various programs thrown in for political posturing and to appease the wishes of powerful interest groups and politicians, rather than a comprehensive response to the justice and human service needs of the state’s residents.

Perhaps the nature of the legislative process prevents such a comprehensive, moral-based, review of the budget until the process is finished. What then can legislators – and citizens as well – do to help ensure a morally sound state budget?

Perhaps legislators – and we – should ask the following questions:

1) How would passage of a proposal affect the common good and not merely our own personal good?

2) Is passage of a proposal consistent with the obligation that society maintain a preferential option for the poor?

A “thank you” goes to Richard J. Malone, Bishop of Portland, Maine, who recently proposed that similar questions be asked about a tax-reform proposal in that state. The questions, reflecting recurring themes in Catholic teaching, are applicable to all public policy questions.

Unlike the popular portrayals of most politicians, North Dakota’s legislators are not inclined to say “yes” to every government proposal that comes along. Many of our legislators from both parties have a difficult time saying “yes” to expenditures, even when money is available.

Such prudence has its place. Indeed, some might argue that such prudence is one reason why the state is experiencing a budget surplus. However, prudence alone is not a virtue. Prudence alone can lead to self-interest, callousness, putting money over people, and economic injustice.

Prudence, if it is to be of any benefit in the budget process, must be shaped by the virtue of charity. Pope Benedict XVI, in his encyclical
Deus Caritas Est speaks of how faith must purify the reasoning used in the pursuit of political goals. Similarly, charity – which flows from love – must purify the prudence used when establishing a state budget.

The state budget surplus is blessing. Using it wisely means using it rightly.