MCC stresses state budget as moral document

| January 4, 2019 | 0 Comments

From left, Jason Adkins, Rachel Herbeck and Shawn Peterson of the Minnesota Catholic Conference stand inside the State Capitol in St. Paul as they look ahead to the 2019 legislative session. Dave Hrbacek / The Catholic Spirit

A divided state government during the legislative session that begins Jan. 8 creates opportunities for moderation and compromise, which is a good place to forge legislation that might be overlooked in a highly partisan environment, said Jason Adkins, executive director and general counsel of the Minnesota Catholic Conference.

Democrats flipped control of the House to their side in the November elections, turning a 57-77 minority into a 75-59 majority, while Republicans kept a one-seat majority in the Senate. Newly-elected Gov. Tim Walz is a Democrat replacing two-term Democrat Gov. Mark Dayton, who is retiring.

“It’s a great space for trying to pull things out of a hyper-political environment,” Adkins said. “It takes the wind out of the sales of a big-ticket, aggressively partisan agenda.”

Budget: A moral document

The divided state Legislature is working with a $1.56 billion budget surplus and a governor determined to raise the state gas tax to create mass transit initiatives, Adkins said. Republicans don’t see a need for a gas tax increase in the face of a budget surplus, Adkins said, and the budget will be a main focus of debate as lawmakers open their two-year session. Lawmakers have a July 1 deadline to develop a budget that will cover the next two fiscal years.

As the public policy voice for the Catholic Church in Minnesota, the MCC can elevate the debate beyond self-interest and partisan differences by stressing that the budget is a moral document that must bring resources to bear on needs of the poor and vulnerable, Adkins said.

“State money should be directed to those most in need,” he said. “This surplus of resources can be used to improve lives.”

So the MCC will lobby for initiatives such as a boost to the cash grant allowed in the Minnesota Family Investment Program, the state’s welfare program for families with children. The MCC has  lobbied for years for an increase in the cash grant, which has not been increased since 1986, more than 30 years ago, Adkins said.

It’s hard for people to overcome poverty in 2019 on 1986 dollars, he said. The cash grant program also should be indexed to the cost of living, another effort backed by the MCC, Adkins said.

In other issues directly related to the budget, the conference will continue to back efforts to create affordable housing with partners such as the Homes for All coalition, and promote school choice initiatives with the Opportunity for All Kids advocacy organization, Adkins said.

Protecting the environment

Over the years, the conference has taken on environmental issues, and protecting water resources is high on that list, Adkins said. People need to be good stewards, as Pope Francis emphasizes in his encyclical on the environment, “Laudato si’,” Adkins said.

“We are a land of well over 10,000 lakes. Water is so precious. One day, it will be more valuable than oil. How do we protect that as good stewards?” he asked.

One principle the conference plans to stress is that creating jobs in mining and other efforts is not incompatible with proper stewardship of the land, Adkins said.

“It does not have to be a zero-sum game,” he said. “The Church is calling for real dialogue among interests and stakeholders.”

Criminal justice reform

Another longstanding, important and moral issue is criminal justice reform, Adkins said. Democrats newly in control of the House are likely to be interested in expanding the right of ex-felons to vote after they are released from prison or jail, ending the requirement that they wait until completing parole. The MCC backs that proposal, he said.

Society can continue to respect the rights of victims while helping to reintegrate offenders in the community, balancing justice with restorative healing, Adkins said.

Dignity of human person

As one way to elevate the debate, the MCC has begun to group issues around common themes, such as the dignity of the human person. A common theme is one way to demonstrate connections and emphasize their importance, Adkins said.

A successful effort last session, built around a theme of preventing commodification of the human person, was MCC-backed legislation that publicly recognizes the link between pornography and sex trafficking. Under a new law, the state is adding pornography to the list of issues studied in the Legislature’s annual human trafficking report. The law also directs fines collected for child pornography and dissemination of harmful materials to minors to the state’s Safe Harbor Program, which fights sex trafficking and assists victims.

The initiative makes Minnesota a leader in understanding that people exploited by sex traffickers are victims, not criminals, Adkins said. And the annual study will help demonstrate connections between pornography and sex trafficking, creating a record that can help solidify understanding of those interlocking evils and point toward ways to eliminate them, he said.

Sex trafficking victims, for example, often are the subjects of pornography, and some viewers of pornography try to act on what they see, becoming perpetrators of a sex crime, he said.

“The state is developing the data as public health information,” Adkins said. “There is a connection between trafficking and pornography. If that is the case, how do we regulate pornography in the interest of public health?”

Also along the theme of preventing commodification of people, the MCC is helping craft legislation to create a regulatory framework around the practice of gestational surrogacy in Minnesota, based on recommendations made by a 2016 legislative commission that studied the issue. MCC’s measure would ban commercial surrogacy, in which surrogates and brokers receive financial compensation. The measure didn’t pass last year, but similar legislation will continue to be discussed, Adkins said.

Commercial surrogacy treats women and children as commodities, which can lead to additional evils, he said.

“When we treat children as a product for sale, what happens when that product is believed to be defective, or not living up to expectations?” Adkins said. “There’s not been a lot of attention paid to that in the public debate.”

Pro-life issues

Issues around the sanctity of life also will be important, from attempts to halt any movement toward legalization of assisted suicide to building a broader consensus against abortion, Adkins said.

One key to preventing assisted suicide is assuring people that they will receive proper end-of-life care, so people don’t need to fear they will die in pain, without comfort or assistance, he said. Society needs to provide “caring, not killing,” he said.

Support for early childhood care also is needed, and the conference will encourage legislation that assists children and mothers during the first three years of a child’s life — “the first 1,000 days from conception to age 3” — with maternity, nutrition, health and education initiatives, he said.

The conference also will support legislation designed to prevent gun violence, such as universal background checks, and prevent both gambling expansion and the legalization of recreational marijuana use, Adkins said.

Across the spectrum of issues, the conference will continue seeking ways to elevate the debate beyond partisan and other interests, stressing the common good and helping the needy, Adkins said. And in a year of divided government, there will be opportunities to get things done, he said.

“This really creates more space for policy,” he said. “A lot of legislation we work on is in that environment.”


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