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California's Budget Surplus and the Preferential Option for the Poor

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March 13, 2014

Money must serve, not rule! The Pope loves everyone, rich and poor alike, but he is obliged in the name of Christ to remind all that the rich must help, respect and promote the poor. I exhort you to generous solidarity and to the return of economics and finance to an ethical approach which favors human beings.  - Evangelli Gaudium, Apostolic Exhortation, Pope Francis

After years of astronomical budget deficits, a slow but steady economic recovery means the Golden State is building a financial surplus. Not all cuts can or should be restored, but as Pope Francis stresses, how do we “favor human beings” as we move into this still tentative recovery?

The Governor’s proposal – backed by many influential legislators – demonstrates a conservative approach. The vast bulk of the surplus goes to paying down the “wall of debt” and strengthening the rainy day fund.

Any number of good causes will compete for the remaining dollars: transportation, public safety, local government or higher education programs to name a few.

As the California Bishops emphasize in In Search of the Common Good: A Moral Framework for Addressing California's Budget Crisis, issued in the depths of the shortfall years: “The sanctity of life is the root of all human rights. In any discussion of budget priorities, the threshold rights of life, food, shelter and medical care must be seen as the highest priorities.”

Special emphasis on such programs in support of these “thresholds” is how we as Californians can respond to Pope Francis’ exhortation to “favor human beings.”

It should be noted that there is not a “lot” of money available – at least relative to $150+ billion in overall state spending. Sales and income tax are currently running about $5.6 billion better than projected. Based on that figure - which still might grow - 40 percent (about $2.8 billion) automatically goes to education based on the voter-approved Proposition 98.  

Debt re-payment and the rainy day fund will receive $2.8 billion according to the Governor. (Although that level can be debated, a cautious approach is to be appreciated.) After that, there’s about $300 million left.

The principles outlined by the California Bishops in the middle of the crisis - promotion of life, the common good, solidarity and subsidiarity - apply equally to public spending during a surplus.

Actions and programs that support life and human dignity must claim the first priority in any financial decisions whether made by individuals for themselves and their families or collectively for as a state or nation. Conversely, of course, actions detrimental to life and dignity must be opposed.

A portion of the $300 million could be used to restore programs for school nutrition, to aid pregnant women in CalWORKs, to re-institute a program that helps eligible residents complete citizenship applications, to use creative tax policy to support students or to introduce a state Earned Income Tax Credit (EITC) – something Republicans and Democrats call the most effective anti-poverty program in the nation.

All of these programs “favor human beings” and all are possible at least, in part, while still meeting the other pressing needs of the Golden State.

Additional Resources:

Economic Justice for All
Compendium of the Social Doctrine of the Church 
Catholic Social Teaching Themes