Commentary

Budget shortfall not just accounting issue

Minnesota’s $5.2 billion budget deficit packs a wallop of worry, but people of
faith start with a calming, counter-cultural premise: God’s creation is good.
We live amidst abundance in this beautiful part of the globe with neighbors
and friends who are generous and kind. We share God’s vision for us — there
will be no poverty; the economy will ensure basic income and opportunity for
all. When we are sick or disabled, we will receive the care we need. We will
stand together in adversity. We will make sure people have housing and heat
this winter. We will be productive, creative, compassionate, and forgiving in
the way we respond to God’s gift of life.

With this in mind, doesn’t the state’s budget deficit sound much more
manageable?

The Joint Religious Legislative Coalition (JRLC) is ready, with humility and
strong voices, to offer state lawmakers a vision and specific policy
prescriptions to address the “mega-deficit” in our state budget. It’s so true:
Without vision, the people perish.

JRLC, a unique interfaith public policy venture, lobbies at the state capitol for
positions agreed upon by the Minnesota Council of Churches, the Minnesota
Catholic Conference, the Jewish Community Relations Council, and the
Islamic Center of Minnesota. The six Minnesota Evangelical Lutheran Church
in America synods vote for JRLC policy positions as part of the Minnesota
Council of Churches deliberations.

Rev. Harvey Leuning, pastor at Gloria Dei Lutheran Church in St. Paul and
JRLC board member, clarifies JRLC’s vision, “God’s people are always called to
embody God’s concern ‘for the least of these who are members of my family.’
This call does not change in the midst of an economic crisis. Rather, the
people of God need to think and act creatively and compassionately so that
the suffering of the people already living on the margins is not compounded.”

Of course the state will have to enact painful budget cuts. Most of the
political power and institutional momentum will be directed at expenditures.
The first several months of the new legislative session will be a quest for
budget savings. The people of God have a crucial role to play in this effort.
We must not allow budget cuts to increase homelessness, hunger, uninsured
people, or other forms of human abandonment.

After the budget trimming, there will be a reckoning because agreed-upon
cuts will not be enough to cover the $4.8 billion shortfall projected for the
2010-2011 biennium. JRLC will keep saying what we’ve said for a long time:
Taxes should be raised fairly and adequately to meet the basic public services
in our state. Taxes must be part of this year’s solution if we are to avoid the
type of inhumane budget reductions we saw in 2003. And new revenues are
needed to address the basic structural imbalance that preceded the current
economic downturn. We need to restore the tax cuts that were recklessly
passed in 1999 and 2000. Other taxes should probably blink on now and
blink off when the recovery comes. As always, our basic tax system should be
built on the notion that those with the ability to pay more should be asked to
do so.

We urgently need to combine federal and state dollars to fund an emergency
jobs program and implement policies to end poverty. Both are crucial to
speeding economic recovery and sharing prosperity for the long run.

Pastor Leuning observes, “To do this will take the best efforts of our elected
leaders as well as our faith communities working together for the sake of all
the people that God has made. The charity and good will of people of faith
can make significant differences in addressing the plight of those living in
poverty, but they cannot do it alone. To insure justice, the support and
commitment of our public institutions is absolutely necessary in meeting
basic human needs.”

To ensure that budget cuts do not fall on the most vulnerable, JRLC will
convene its annual Day on the Hill legislative conference and lobby day on
Tuesday, February 3; information about the event and on-line registration is
at www.jrlc.org.

JRLC is offering public leadership that approaches this budget challenge as an
opportunity to change things for the common good. Solving the deficit is so
much more than an accounting challenge. Instead, it offers a chance to make
changes that set the stage for Minnesota’s next leap forward.

God gives us plenty. In our democracy, we will decide together if there is
enough for everyone.

Brian Rusche is the executive director of the Joint Religious Legislative
Coalition, and is a member of Valley Community Presbyterian Church in
Golden Valley, Minnesota.