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Principles for a State Budget
By Christopher Dodson
Executive Director
North Dakota Catholic Conference
March 2020

The North Dakota Legislative Assembly will not meet again until January 2021. The governor will not present a proposed budget until the month before. Even then, the legislature may ignore it and submit its own budget bill, as it has done in recent years. Moreover, let us not forget that there is a gubernatorial election this year and half of the legislative districts are up for contest.

Despite all these unknowns, politicians, activists, state agencies, and legislators are already working on the state budget for the 2021-2022 biennium.

Unless you one of those special breeds that enjoy numbers, watching the budget-making process can be frustrating, boring, and mysterious at the same time. Conceptualizing how a dollar figure assigned to an acronym-designated government agency or program affects real people can be daunting.

State budgets, however, affect real people. As such, they should get special attention from Catholics concerned about putting faith into action.

How much money the state should collect through taxes, how to collect it, and how to spend it are matters of prudential judgment. There does not exist a single “Catholic” way to form a budget. Nevertheless, the mere fact that something can be a matter of prudential judgment does not mean that it escapes our moral and religious obligations. The exercise of prudential judgment must conform to reason and faith. What, then, are some of the principles that should guide the use of prudential judgment when it comes to a state budget?

First, we need to reject the libertarian fallacy that forcing people to pay taxes is inherently wrong and that more government is always bad. Neither of these ideas have a place in Catholic social doctrine. The church teaches that people have a duty to pay taxes and that the government is part of the established order of society. It is a not a “necessary evil.”

Governments, however, are obligated to be good stewards of the revenue collected. Quoting Saint John Paul II, the Compendium of the Social Doctrine of the Church states: “As an instrument of the State, public administration at any level — national, regional, community — is oriented towards the service of citizens: ‘Being at the service of its citizens, the State is the steward of the people's resources, which it must administer with a view to the common good.’” [No. 412] Good stewardship means not only avoiding unnecessary spending, but also eschewing building unnecessarily complex bureaucracies. Perhaps most importantly, the Compendium points out that good stewardship means not spending for “unjust private interests.”

As Saint John Paul II noted, the state must administer its resources for the common good. Sometimes, common good is misunderstood as being only something that benefits everyone in common. This is where we get the false notion that taxes should only be spent on something that benefits every citizen in the state.

The Compendium’s explanation of the common good is worth setting out in full:

“The principle of the common good, to which every aspect of social life must be related if it is to attain its fullest meaning, stems from the dignity, unity and equality of all people. According to its primary and broadly accepted sense, the common good indicates ‘the sum total of social conditions which allow people, either as groups or as individuals, to reach their fulfillment more fully and more easily.’”"The common good does not consist in the simple sum of the particular goods of each subject of a social entity. Belonging to everyone and to each person, it is and remains “common”, because it is indivisible and because only together is it possible to attain it, increase it and safeguard its effectiveness, with regard also to the future.” [No. 164]

It is “common” because it stems from the dignity we share in common. The direction should be toward those conditions which allow us reach our fulfillment as human persons. The challenge for lawmakers — and us as citizens — is that these conditions are not always tangible, immediate, or quantifiable. They are not dollar amounts on a tax return. They can range from laws defining marriage to decisions to whether to build a new state hospital or prison.

The church teaches that everyone has a responsibility for the common good, but government has a primary duty toward the common good. At the same time, the state has an obligation to put the least among us first. This is not just a duty of Christians acting privately. It is also the task of the government that represents us.

This sometimes turns the whole political process on its head. At this very moment, government agencies, politicians, and lobbyists are jockeying for a piece of the state’s budget, including the Legacy Fund. The powerful are often not the least among us. We should, therefore, pray and act now for a budget directed toward the common good and the least among us.

What We Do

The North Dakota Catholic Conference acts on behalf of the Roman Catholic bishops of North Dakota to respond to public policy issues of concern to the Catholic Church and to educate Catholics and the general public about Catholic social doctrine.
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