By Joe Ruff
Three new sources of state funding will help protect life from conception to age 2 — the first 1,000 days of life.
The state’s welfare program for families with children will see its first cash grant increase in 33 years — from $621 to $721 a month for a family of four.
And in the legislative session that ended late last month, lawmakers maintained a provider tax on health care services that helps to ensure access to medical care for low-income Minnesotans — although the tax was reduced from 2 percent to 1.8 percent.
Those are among victories for families and people in need during a legislative session that saw a divided government reach compromises to serve the common good, said Jason Adkins, executive director of the Minnesota Catholic Conference.
“I think our legislative leaders and the governor have to be congratulated and commended,” Adkins said. “People can come together and respect one another.”
Democrats took control of the House in the November elections, while Republicans hold the Senate. Gov. Tim Walz, a Democrat who won office in November, replaced two-term Democrat Gov. Mark Dayton, who retired.
Going into the session that began in January, Adkins suggested that the divided government could create opportunities for moderation and compromise. And that’s what happened, he said, during a session that included closed-door negotiations among Walz, Senate Majority Leader Paul Gazelka of Nisswa and Democratic Farmer-Labor (DFL) House Speaker Melissa Hortman of Brooklyn Park.
Lawmakers sealed the deals in a 21-hour special session that ended May 25 by approving a $48.3 billion budget for the next two years.
Some lawmakers and observers of the Legislature criticized the closed-door sessions. Adkins said he didn’t necessarily agree.
“At some point, people have to get in a room and they’ve got to work out their differences,” he said. Party leaders are entrusted by their caucuses to speak for them, Adkins said, similar to labor negotiations between union and management.
The session certainly provided good news for issues and concerns to the MCC, which represents the public policy interests of the Catholic Church in Minnesota, he said. Of 31 bills tracked this session by the conference, 22 had favorable outcomes from MCC’s perspective.
Adkins also credited Catholics who stepped up during the second Catholics at the Capitol event in St. Paul Feb. 19, which included as speakers actor Jim Caviezel and Archbishop Charles Chaput of Philadelphia. More than 1,000 people traveled from across the state to pray, learn about pertinent issues and visit with lawmakers. Groups organized by legislative district visited more than 190 of the Legislature’s 201 lawmakers, Adkins said.
“Politics is made by the people who show up,” Adkins said. “It’s important that Catholics show up at the Capitol and add our voices for life, dignity and the common good.”
Fruits of the effort were seen this session, Adkins said, including lawmakers passing three out of four initiatives highlighted by the conference as important to promoting maternal and child well-being. One of the bills, which called for a study to help identify barriers to breastfeeding, didn’t pass. But lawmakers approved funds for pro-life programs designed to reduce racial disparities in access to prenatal care, provide health-related home visiting programs for families with young children, and help meet the transportation needs of pregnant or young mothers in school, he said.
“These are really important programs that help at a crucial stage of a child’s development,” Adkins said.
Lawmakers also stepped up the state’s help for the needy by increasing the cash grant in the Minnesota Family Investment Program, the state’s welfare program for families with children, Adkins said. That grant hadn’t received a boost since 1986. The conference lobbied for years for an increase, and it placed special emphasis on that need at the inaugural Catholics at the Capitol in 2017, he said.
“People were using 1986 dollars to try to overcome 2019 poverty and that was really, really a challenge,” he said. “But with a lot of shovel work over the years” the grant will be increased, he said.
Other initiatives backed by the conference and advanced by lawmakers include fees imposed on pharmaceutical companies to help combat the opioid crisis, and advocates for the homeless securing $78 million in new investments for emergency shelters, rental assistance, and preservation and production of affordable homes.
MCC was pleased that several bills did not advance, he said, including an initiative that would have prevented Christian-based counseling of people seeking help for unwanted same-sex attraction and gender dysphoria, as well as efforts to expand gambling and legalize recreational marijuana use.
A bill that would have allowed commercial surrogacy in Minnesota, in effect treating women and children as commodities, also failed to advance, a victory for Catholics and others concerned about that issue,
“We were able derail that with the help of people at Catholics at the Capitol, which was really exciting, and then at the same time build momentum for an alternative proposal to ban commercial surrogacy,”
Momentum built by Catholics also succeeded in halting advancement of a statewide comprehensive sexual education mandate in public schools that would have promoted gender identity ideology, abortion, and unhealthy sexual behaviors, Adkins said.
“That was one of the biggest issues on which the Catholic people … were really fired up and took action on,” he said.
Disappointments included Walz’ opposition to and the ultimate defeat of a $25 million scholarship program to help low- and moderate-income students attend Catholic and other private schools, Adkins said.
“We’re very disappointed in that,” he said. “I’m very grateful to legislative leaders who have three times now gotten the opportunity scholarship tax credit right to the finish line, but Gov. Dayton and now Gov. Walz have been absolutely adamant in their opposition.”
MCC and the state’s bishops also were disappointed that a proposal to allow undocumented immigrants to obtain driver’s licenses failed to pass, he said.
But MCC will continue to advocate for those positions and others as lawmakers look to the second half of the biennial session, which begins Feb. 11 and tends to focus on policy and bond issues, Adkins said.
It might be harder to find consensus on policy issues with Democrats in the House and Republicans in the Senate, and both sides staking claims they hope will attract voters in fall 2020, Adkins said. But the time between now and February provides additional opportunities for people to talk with lawmakers and let them know what issues are important, he said.
One area requiring particular vigilance is stopping any movement toward legalization of assisted suicide, Adkins said. No hearings on the issue have been held thus far in this biennial session, but assisted suicide is likely to receive more attention in the fall or during the next session, he said.
Tracking bills on MCC’s website at mccatholic.org and joining its Catholic Advocacy Network of email alerts and information helps people keep up with legislation important to the state’s bishops and key times to contact lawmakers, Adkins said.
“This is when, in the interim, people can talk to their legislators about what they’d like to see done,” he said.
Joe Ruff is news editor of The Catholic Spirit, newspaper of the Archdiocese of St. Paul and Minneapolis.