School choice legislation fails to pass, but MCC sees ‘marriage-friendly’ welfare win at session’s end

| May 31, 2017 | 0 Comments

Real compromise — but not the right kind — characterized the 2017 state legislative session, said Jason Adkins, Minnesota Catholic Conference executive director.

The final omnibus bills demonstrated concessions from both major parties, but they were “geared to reach certain electoral constituencies or serving special interests,” he said, pointing the finger at both sides of the aisle.

The session began Jan. 3 and ended May 22, but legislators went into a special session to finalize omnibus spending bills, finishing the session’s work at 3 a.m. May 26. The final budget bills — which Gov. Mark Dayton signed May 30 — included some funds that support MCC-backed policies, but not the school choice tax credits that MCC made its No. 1 priority for the session.

The Opportunity Scholarship Tax Credit bill aimed at helping families afford nonpublic school tuition made it to a budget bill Dayton vetoed mid-May, but it was omitted in the final bill.

The legislation “was certainly an important goal of Republican leaders, but in the end not a must-have,” Adkins said. “Senate Republican leadership preferred to get things done on time and not fight for it if it would break a compromise, and Republican leadership would have rather had tax credits for tobacco companies and the estates of multi-millionaires. Those special interests took precedence over the needs of low- and middle-income families. … And that’s just frankly sad.”

Meanwhile, Dayton fought school choice on behalf of the teachers union, Adkins said.

This is the second year that school choice legislation has been removed in the compromise over a final omnibus bill. While Adkins is eager to see the legislation pass, the fact that it has twice made it into late-hour negotiations makes him optimistic that it will continue to gain support and momentum, especially with the help of Opportunity for All Kids, a MCC-supported nonprofit backing school choice initiatives.

“In states with robust school choice programs, those programs didn’t happen overnight. It takes work,” Adkins said. “The [local] school choice movement really didn’t have momentum until we founded OAK. … OAK has made incredible progress and has been extraordinarily successful with very limited resources getting our legislation at the center of the mix.”

Supporting school choice was among the three priorities MCC highlighted in March at its first Catholics at the Capitol, a daylong event that drew 1,000 Catholics from across the state to St. Paul to learn about  policy areas and speak with their legislators. Other focus issues were fighting physician-assisted suicide and expanding the Minnesota Family Investment Program’s cash grant for families in need.

While legislation aiming to legalize physician-assisted suicide was introduced this session, it never got a hearing. However, legislation passed to form a palliative care advisory council to advise the Legislature on improving access and training for palliative care, which eases the suffering of people who are dying, or those living with chronic illnesses.

The council was backed by both the MCC and its partner organization, the Minnesota Alliance for Ethical Healthcare. Adkins encourages Minnesota Catholics with palliative care experience to apply to participate in the council by contacting the Minnesota Secretary of State’s office.

MCC also lobbied for a $13 monthly credit per recipient and a cost-of-living adjustment to the MFIP’s cash grant, part of the state’s welfare program for families. The monthly amount has not increased in 31 years. Although it made it to the governor’s desk in the first Health and Human Services appropriations bill — which Dayton vetoed May 12 — the increase was not included in the final version, Adkins said.

“Democrats didn’t want Republicans to get credit for something they should have been doing,” he said, adding that the Dayton administration “didn’t want the provision in many ways, because, in the theme of special interests, some of that money used to fund that cash grant increase would be taken away from an innovation grant that funds Planned Parenthood.”

Also not passed was an expansion for MFIP’s working family credit’s eligibility age for married couples with children, although the age was expanded for single people, including single parents.

Another MCC-backed policy that did not pass was provisional driver’s licenses for unauthorized immigrant drivers. Instead, a ban on immigrant driver’s licenses passed, which Adkins said the MCC will work to reverse.

Small wins for the MCC included state funding to help complete the second phase of Catholic Charities’ new Dorothy Day Place in downtown St. Paul, eligibility of state funding for electronic textbooks and advanced placement course fees for nonpublic schools, tax credits to help beginning farmers rent land and participate in farm management programs, and a one-year suspension of an income cap for people on the state’s welfare program who marry.

That “income disregard” is important because it removes a disincentive to marriage, Adkins said, adding that Joint Religious Legislative Coalition leaders lobbied hard for the policy, and, to his knowledge, Minnesota is the first state in the nation to adopt it.

“Marriage is a key anti-poverty mechanism,” he said. “It helps people build assets, create stability in their lives, and it’s necessary for the well-being of children. … Essentially, we’re making welfare more marriage friendly.”

With eight months to the Feb. 22 start of the 2018 legislative session, Adkins is looking ahead, but he said its impact will be determined by whether legislators focus on policy or campaigning for the governor’s office. The governor pick will determine how the MCC sets its course for 2019 and beyond.

In the meantime, Adkins is questioning the state’s session structure as a means to bring the right people into office.

“I think it’s a worthwhile discussion of whether or not Minnesota is best served by a two-session biennium, and whether or not it actually hinders quality people for running for office, people who see this work as service and a vocation, and not a career,” Adkins said.

He added: “The fact that our Legislature meets typically eight to 10 months in a two-year period, it doesn’t pay well, most of the work gets done in a very short period of time near the end, and very few people are actually involved in the final process is discouraging people from being involved in public office. We need to take a look at whether or not a short session, perhaps three months, in the odd years of a biennium, and special sessions, if necessary, might be the way to go.”

Based in St. Paul, MCC is the public policy voice for the Catholic Church in Minnesota.

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