Grassroots efforts aid Catholic Conference at 2014 Legislature

| May 22, 2014 | 0 Comments

Every state legislative session presents its own challenges and opportunities, and the 2014 session was no different, said Jason Adkins, executive director of the Minnesota Catholic Conference.

“We were pleased by the passage of some bills, particularly in the area of economic security,” he said. “But we were disappointed in the passage of other bills. Just like any session, it’s a mixed bag of positives and negatives.”

One of the biggest positives emerging from the session that ended May 16 was the growing participation of Catholics in the pews through the MCC’s Catholic Advocacy Network, an initiative that invites people to sign up online to receive updates on policy issues and information about how to take action on specific legislation.

The network currently numbers in the “tens of thousands” and complements MCC’s lobbying work at the Capitol, Adkins said.

“It was a really big component of our advocacy efforts this year,” assisting the MCC, for example, in its efforts to stop a bill that would have legalized surrogate birth contracts, he said.

“As I always tell people, it takes as few as 10 calls to a legislator to make a difference,” Adkins said. “On a number of issues, legislators were getting 30, 40, 50 emails, not including calls. It was a big boon to our efforts.”

What passed? What didn’t?

The MCC is the public policy voice of the state’s Catholic bishops. The following are among the bills it tracked this session and how they fared:

  • Payday lending reforms: Payday lenders are businesses that offer short-term loans due on a borrower’s next payday. The loans are typically more expensive than other methods of borrowing and, if unpaid, can put borrowers in serious debt trouble. The MCC supported a proposal to create underwriting standards and cap the number of payday loans that a person could take from a payday lending institution.

“We’re very concerned about people in difficult economic circumstances, particularly in these challenging economic times, getting caught in that debt trap,” Adkins said. Different versions of the legislation passed the House and Senate and legislators failed to pass a final version before the session ended.

  • Minimum wage increase/economic security issues: The MCC was supportive of an increase in the minimum wage, which legislators voted to increase to $8 an hour in August, then $8.50 in August 2015 and $9.50 in August 2016.

“Raising the minimum wage was one of the key recommendations of the bipartisan Legislative Commission to End Poverty, and it’s really exciting to see that recommendation come to fruition,” Adkins said. “A number of important pieces of research show the economic benefits the legislation will have for low-income families.”

The MCC also supported key provisions of the Women’s Economic Security Act, specifically those supporting parental leave and accommodations for nursing mothers. The act was signed into law on Mother’s Day, May 11.

  • Surrogacy contracts: The MCC opposed efforts to legalize surrogate birth contracts in the state. Commercial surrogacy is an arrangement in which a woman carries to term a child who is not hers biologically for the intended parents.

“Our opposition to surrogacy is focused on our desire to not allow women in difficult economic circumstances to be exploited,” Adkins said. “We were able to successfully stop the legalization of a commercial surrogacy business in Minnesota.”

The Catholic Advocacy Network was very effective in educating legislators about the broad implications of the proposal and the “ethical minefield” it would create, he said. “It’s an issue that will remain a priority — helping people understand that women are not for rent and children are not for sale.”

  • Felon disenfranchisement: The conference supported efforts to restore voting rights to Minnesotans with past felony convictions who are no longer incarcerated.

“We were disappointed that piece of legislation . . . fell by the wayside this session despite bipartisan support,” Adkins said. “It’s an important issue with regard to fostering community participation and helping people rebuild their lives. It’s important that the Church speaks to such issues. We’re very confident that next session this is something that will pass.”

  • Religious liberty and conscience protections: “These issues remain a priority for us, and we spent a lot of time this session on education,” Adkins said. “That conversation will continue, particularly in the context of schools, health care and the provision of business services related to weddings.”

With last year’s passage of a law legalizing same-sex marriage in the state, the MCC has advocated for strengthening religious liberty and conscience protection laws for those who object to the solemnization or celebration of such unions.

  • Anti-bullying: The Legislature passed a controversial anti-bullying bill that supporters hoped would stem the tide of bullying in schools but which opponents said would remove local control from school districts and usurp the authority of parents to teach their children in areas such as gender and sexuality.

“This was a deeply unfortunate piece of legislation that passed this year,” Adkins said. “We were, of course, supportive of efforts to strengthen Minnesota’s anti-bullying laws. Unfortunately, this is the wrong approach that undermines the rights of parents to be the first educators of their children.” Requirements that would have included Catholic schools were removed from the final bill.

  • Affordable housing: Lawmakers included $100 million for housing initiatives as part of this year’s bonding bill. “We’re a part of the Minnesota Coalition for the Homeless, so that’s exciting,” Adkins said.

Catholic Charities of St. Paul and Minneapolis was seeking part of the funding for its Dorothy Day Center ReVision initiative, which includes three new buildings to provide a longer-term solution to homelessness in the Twin Cities.

  • Non-public school aid: A bill seeking to repeal non-public pupil aid for transportation, textbooks, counseling and health services, and telecommunications and Internet access services was introduced, but failed to advance.

Looking ahead

The MCC is looking forward to continuing the conversation around religious liberty during the observance of the next Fortnight for Freedom set for June 21 to July 4.

“I’m delighted by this year’s theme: ‘freedom to serve,’” Adkins said. “It’s all about our ability to serve others in accord with human dignity and the Church’s teaching.” He encourages people to use MCC as a resource in their preparations for the observance (find out more at mncc.org).

The MCC will continue its education efforts around a variety of issues including conscience protections, voter restoration, educational choice, and surrogacy ahead of next year’s legislative session.

The conference also will pursue efforts on the pro-life front. “We’re exploring a couple of different pieces of legislation outside of just banning abortion that we believe could help advance the culture of life,” Adkins said. Details about the efforts are forthcoming.

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