MCC outlines priorities, expectations in legislative session

| February 19, 2020 | 0 Comments

From left, Jack Lawlis and Jason Adkins of the Minnesota Catholic Conference stand inside the State Capitol building Feb. 19 as they begin work during the current legislative session. Adkins is the executive director and Lawlis is the policy and outreach coordinator. DAVE HRBACEK | THE CATHOLIC SPIRIT

A divided state government and looming November elections will flavor initiatives and debate in the Minnesota Legislature as lawmakers convene at the State Capitol in St. Paul over the next four months.

A bonding bill is likely to pass; finding compromises and common ground in other areas in an election year will determine how much more gets done, said Jason Adkins, executive director and general counsel of the Minnesota Catholic Conference, the public policy arm of the state’s bishops. 

The Democratic-Farmer-Labor Party holds the majority in the House and Gov. Tim Walz is a Democrat; Republicans control the Senate. All 201 seats in the House and Senate are up for election in November. 

Much of the lawmakers’ heavy lifting took place last year, the first year of the two-year session, when legislators passed and Walz signed a $48.5 billion budget bill. 

Highlights of the session’s second half, which opened Feb. 11 and is expected to close May 18, are expected to include lawmakers’ discussing what best to do with a projected $1.3 billion budget surplus. 

The bonding bill would allow the state to borrow money needed to repair bridges and roads, upgrade sewer and water systems and maintain state buildings. Walz has proposed borrowing a record $2 billion for public works projects, including a record $270 million for affordable housing initiatives. House Democrats have suggested borrowing $3.5 billion, while Republicans have suggested $1 billion or less.

MCC will be advocating for a number of proposals, Adkins said in an email interview.

Q. How much of a role might the divided state government and upcoming November elections play in what lawmakers try to get done this legislative session?

A. It will likely be decisive. Minnesota has the only legislature in the United States divided along partisan lines. The ability of lawmakers to strike compromises and find common ground for the common good will determine how much gets done. It is likely that most legislative activity in each body will end up being public positioning for the election.

One important piece of information for which everyone at the Capitol waits is the state fiscal forecast, which will be released on Feb. 27. That forecast will determine how much money is available for spending projects or tax relief. 

A bonding bill, which allows the state to finance construction projects, is the biggest piece of legislation likely to pass this year. 

Q. What are some of the key issues MCC will be lobbying on this year and how can Catholics help?

A. Promoting school choice and combating the legalization of assisted suicide will remain at the top of our list. 

Other issues on which we are focused and that will be a part of the conversation at the Capitol this year include gambling expansion and the legalization of recreational marijuana (we’re opposed); bonding for housing and clean water; funding for emergency shelter and anti-poverty efforts; and ensuring that any bans on so-called “conversion therapy” do not become overly broad bans on counseling that prevent young people from accessing the professional services they need for hope and healing. 

The real “conversion therapy” that should be banned is sex change therapies for children, such as hormone treatments and surgeries, which leave kids mutilated and harmed for life. Unfortunately, as was seen recently in South Dakota, even red-state legislators don’t have the appetite for taking on gender identity ideology when it aligns itself with big business and corporate healthcare. 

Gun-related bills will receive plenty of attention, but the likelihood of something passing is small. 

The best way for Catholics to stay on top of what’s going on at the Capitol on issues of particular concern to our state’s bishops is to join the Catholic Advocacy Network. Becoming part of the Network allows people to join their voice to those of thousands of others in support or in opposition to key legislation impacting human dignity and the common good. With the click of a mouse, you can send a message to your legislator. 

Often, people don’t know what to say, and don’t know when to say it, so they don’t say anything at all. We hope the Network removes a big barrier to participation by offering a pre-crafted message on a key issue that can be personalized. To sign up, go to mncatholic.org. 

We encourage people to befriend their legislators and not just be demanding things from them. Legislators need us as a resource to help them identify issues and which ones are the most important to their constituents. In other words, the political process is about showing up. 

Q. Legislation to help Catholics and others afford to send their children to the school of their choice has been important to the bishops and others in Minnesota. What form are those initiatives taking this session? Why is this such an important issue for the Church?

A. A good education should not depend on your zip code or socio-economic status. Therefore, as in past years, we are advocating a tax credit proposal targeted to low income families that allows them to receive a refundable tax credit (like a subsidy) for expenses they incurred in making private school tuition payments. 

Gov. Walz said no to the “opportunity scholarship” tax credit that we proposed last year, which induced donations to foundations offering scholarships by offering a tax credit for the donations. So, this year, with our partners at Opportunity for All Kids (OAK) we are bringing forward a new proposal that gives the credit directly to low-income families. 

School choice is a vital civil rights issue in light of the persistent academic achievement gap between white students and students of color. We refuse to take “no” for an answer, and we will continue to come back year after year with new proposals. 

Kids can’t wait for some imaginary futures where the problems in public schools are fixed because there is funding. For one, the lack of funds isn’t necessarily the problem, and funding has already been increasing steadily. Further, the one-size fits all school system model doesn’t serve the diversity of children, needs, and learning styles. Families need more choices. 

Those interested in getting more engaged can join the Catholic Advocacy Network (mncatholic.org) or get more information at opportunityforallkids.org. More than anything, we need to let Gov. Walz know that standing in the way of real education reform is a disservice to kids and families. 

Q. The bishops have backed efforts, in light of the country’s broken immigration system, to allow undocumented immigrants living in Minnesota to obtain driver’s licenses, so they can be properly insured, work and go to school. Do you anticipate that effort being renewed in the coming months? How does the MCC respond to critics who argue that people in this country illegally should not be given the right to drive?

A. Proposals to provide provisional driver’s licenses to undocumented persons are not likely to pass this year. Still, it is important that affected persons, clergy, and people in the pew share their support for this proposal with state legislators. The political landscape may be more hospitable in 2021 and we must keep tilling the soil. 

We (MCC staff) have been putting together groups of undocumented persons, DREAMers, and priests to visit with legislators. Hearing stories and testimonies from constituents has made an impact on legislators. When we engage in the politics of encounter, as Pope Francis calls it, we are able to embrace new perspectives and identify new paths forward. 

Regarding those who object to immigrant driver’s licenses, I would note that there is almost zero chance that the majority of undocumented persons will be deported. They are here to stay. Therefore, the question, in light of the inability of Congress to pass comprehensive immigration reform, is how we can assist those persons living among us, who want to drive safely to church, work, and school, and not fear being permanently separated from their families? 

A driver’s license makes it easier to meet the basic necessities of life, particularly in rural areas without public transportation. Do we want to consign people to the shadows of society and create a permanent underclass of persons who fear going out or working because they cannot bear to be deported?

The Church’s immigration advocacy focuses on keeping families together, and the driver’s license issue is an important component of that advocacy at a statewide level. 

Q. A hearing was held last year in the lead up to this legislative session on allowing physician-assisted suicide in Minnesota. Do you anticipate this gaining traction in this half of the session? Please share some of the reasons that fellow Catholics can share on why the Catholic Church is opposed to assisted suicide.

A. We were pleased with how the information hearing went in September, as the Minnesota Alliance for Ethical Healthcare, our partner coalition of over 50 organizations, assembled a great group of voices to speak against the bill and raise real doubts in the minds of legislators about the wisdom of the proposal. 

When care is expensive and killing is cheap, which one do we think will prevail in a service increasingly dominated by financial considerations? Protecting the “choice” of a select few will likely endanger the health care choices of the rest of us. 

We believe the proposal is dead for this year. Still, the bill’s proponent, Compassion & Choices, has enormous amounts of money and will return annually with a new bill. Legalizing assisted suicide is a terrible proposal that will endanger the poor, elderly, disabled, and vulnerable. Nothing could be more indicative of the throwaway culture that Pope Francis has decried. 

Q. Last year, MCC and others were able to help prevent a proposal from advancing that would have required certain sexual education mandates in Minnesota schools. Do you expect these to come up again this session? What are some of the concerns around this education proposal?

A. The House of Representatives included a provision on “comprehensive sex education” (CSE) in its education finance omnibus bill. It was struck from the final bill. Regardless of any action the House takes, it will likely not pass in the Senate. One of its main proponents is Planned Parenthood, and its hard to draw the conclusion from CSE’s use in other states that the programming is anything other than sexualizing young people and grooming them for a lifetime of promiscuity and heartbreak. CSE is certainly not encouraging young people to limit their sexual activity to the lifelong, fruitful union of one man and one woman. 

Q. A lack of affordable housing is a growing concern in Minnesota, and the governor has proposed $270 million in bonds for housing initiatives. What role might MCC play this session in advocating for affordable housing?

A. There really is a housing crunch in Minnesota right now that is driving up housing costs, so initiatives to stimulate the creation of more affordable housing are important. It’s an issue that is becoming less partisan. Most legislators are hearing from their constituents about the issue. 

Our partner organization, the Joint Religious Legislative Coalition, held a legislative summit on Feb. 20 specifically for faith leaders to help them become advocates for more affordable housing.

We should not forget the most destitute, either. There is a lack of emergency shelter services and supports for the homeless. The Emergency Service Program (ESP) is the most flexible source of funds for Minnesota’s shelter providers to respond to the unsheltered crisis and, along with Catholic Charities and other anti-poverty organizations, MCC is supporting an increase in funding for the program. 

Q. MCC has expressed concerns in the past about efforts to legalize recreational marijuana. What are MCC’s primary arguments against this effort? What kind of attention might lawmakers give to this issue this year?

A. Recreational marijuana would hurt many Minnesotans, in particular, young people, the poor, and the vulnerable. 

In Colorado, legalization led to an increased number of traffic accidents, higher rates of arrests for marijuana among African American and Hispanic children, and an increased prevalence of marijuana in youth suicide toxicology screenings. 

Marijuana consumption also increases one’s risk for psychotic disorders, causes cognitive decline, and is linked to a wide range of health issues. 

The harms of marijuana are well-documented; numerous community leaders and organizations throughout Minnesota have taken a stance in opposition to recreational marijuana. 

Public policy should further the wellbeing of all those in society, and should prioritize especially the needs of the poor and vulnerable. Lawmakers must not sacrifice the common good in the name of satisfying the recreational interests of the few who have the financial means to buy themselves out of the consequences of frequent marijuana use.

Q. Anything you would like to add?

A. Yes. Though our Catholics at the Capitol event will not return until Spring 2021, we are still hosting some exciting faithful citizenship trainings this year. On May 6, MCC will host an “Advocacy and Adoration” day at the Capitol. It’s an opportunity for Catholics to meet with legislators about key issues as the session winds down, as well as visit Our Lord in the Capitol and pray for our elected officials and our state. 

The following day, May 7, we will host a Capitol 101 training, followed by a prayer service in the Rotunda for National Day of Prayer. A separate Capitol 101 training will be held April 16. For more information, visit mncatholic.org or sign up for the Catholic Advocacy Network. 

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