By Joe Towalski
St. Cloud Visitor
After a contentious U.S. presidential campaign that highlighted the nation’s deep political divisions, the Minnesota Catholic Conference is hoping that state Republicans and Democrats can rise above partisan differences to pass legislation consistent with the conference’s 2017 public policy priorities.
“One thing that’s going to be a challenge with this legislative session — which we also saw in 2016 — is the challenge of divided government,” said Jason Adkins, executive director of MCC, the church’s official public policy voice in the state.
Republicans, who control both the House and Senate, will need to work with Democratic Gov. Mark Dayton during this year’s session, which began Jan. 3 and ends in May. Among the challenges they face is what to do with a projected $1.4 billion state budget surplus.
“Not everyone is going to get what they want,” Adkins said in a Dec. 28 interview. “The question is: How willing are they to work together, and how willing are they to embrace compromise?”
One issue sure to get attention from lawmakers is health care reform, including what to do about the rising cost of premiums for Minnesotans who purchase health insurance on their own — particularly those who aren’t eligible for federal tax credits made available by the Affordable Care Act signed into law by President Barack Obama in 2010.
“As Gov. Dayton has said, the Affordable Care Act is no longer affordable for many people,” Adkins noted.
From MCC’s perspective, any federal reforms of the ACA or changes to the state insurance exchange should be based on three principles: 1) making certain that everyone in the state has access to basic health care that is indeed affordable; 2) ensuring that changes don’t impose immoral mandates similar to the ACA’s contraceptive mandate, which continues to face legal challenges; and 3) guaranteeing conscience protections for health care providers.
Additionally, MCC’s priorities for the 2017 session include several issues for which it has advocated during the last few years at the Legislature:
MCC is encouraging legislators to add non-public school tuition as an eligible expense of the K-12 education tax credit, as well as create tax credits for individuals and businesses who donate to scholarship granting organizations, such as the Aim Higher Foundation in Minnetonka.
“Educational choice is a moral imperative, and it’s a civil rights imperative,” Adkins said. “There are too many kids in Minnesota of all races who are not getting access to a good education.”
Growing achievement gaps continue to be a problem, he said, and families — particularly those with limited financial resources — need to be empowered so they can select the best schools for their children, whether those schools are public or private.
Last year, the Legislature came close to passing a school choice–related tax credit measure. Thanks to ongoing outreach efforts as well as support across political party lines, Adkins believes such proposals are gaining momentum and have a good chance of being enacted into law this year.
“Gov. Dayton has been open to education tax credit proposals … and under the right circumstances [he has] indicated a willingness to not stand in the way of those,” Adkins said.
A bill to legalize physician-assisted suicide received a committee hearing last March, but it was pulled from consideration following several hours of emotional testimony from both supporters and opponents of the measure.
With pro-life majorities now in control in both the House and Senate, the issue likely won’t advance this year. But physician-assisted suicide measures were recently approved in Colorado and Washington, D.C., and Minnesota is listed as a targeted state for legalization, highlighting the need for ongoing education about why such measures aren’t good public policy, Adkins said.
MCC is part of the Minnesota Alliance for Ethical Healthcare, a diverse coalition of 35 organizations that includes faith-based groups, disability advocates and health care providers. It promotes advocacy and education in favor of life-affirming options, such as improved palliative care.
“Oftentimes people say [physician-assisted suicide] is an important choice for some people to have, but by enacting this so-called choice, which is neither compassionate nor serves personal autonomy, what you are going to get is a policy that endangers vulnerable people and creates incentives that undermine quality care,” Adkins said. “It’s much cheaper to give someone a bottle of pills and send them home to die than it is to provide them authentic care.”
MCC hopes to update soon its end-of-life care resources, including the Minnesota Catholic Health Care Directive, which helps people state their wishes for end-of-life care in accordance with Catholic teaching.
In December, after hearing months of testimony, a state legislative commission recommended strict limits on commercial surrogacy. MCC supported legislation in 2015 creating the 15-member bipartisan commission to take an in-depth look at the practice, in which a woman contracts to become pregnant and give birth to a child to be raised by someone else.
Among the commission’s recommendations were to adopt either a ban on commercial surrogacy or a cap on the compensation a surrogate mother could receive; allowing only U.S. citizens to participate in a Minnesota surrogacy contract; and allowing only single embryo transfers for surrogacy pregnancies, thus eliminating the possibility of aborting additional embryos, a process sometimes termed “selective reduction.” The commission’s recommendations also prohibit surrogacy contracts from having abortion clauses.
“We’re still digesting the commission’s recommendations and talking to legislators about what the legislative climate is like for a piece of [regulatory] legislation consistent with some or many of those proposals,” Adkins said.
“Certainly, raising awareness about the commercial surrogacy industry and its potential for creating a market in which Minnesota women would be available to people from all over the world to act as surrogates in exchange for compensation is something we’re deeply concerned about,” he added.
MCC continues to support an increase in the cash grant for the Minnesota Family Investment Program, which assists low-income families with children. The amount of the grant has not increased in 31 years.
“This is an issue that has started to generate a bipartisan consensus that something needs to be done — that families participating in the program shouldn’t have to use 1986 dollars to overcome poverty in 2017,” Adkins said. “The challenge is to make that a legislative spending priority for both parties. Right now it’s not.”
MCC wants to keep the issue in front of legislators. The Catholic Church has “a preferential option for the poor and vulnerable,” he said. “Our budgets and policies are judged by how well they serve those most in need. This needs to be a priority issue for legislators when they consider funding their Health and Human Services budget for 2017.”
MCC also is interested in working with its partners — including the Joint Religious Legislative Coalition — to reform some aspects of MFIP, such as removing barriers for people to marry. MFIP is based on household income, so if a person on the program marries, they may reach an income level for which they no longer qualify for the program but are still in need of assistance.
“Right now the way the program is structured, it disincentivizes people to marry,” Adkins said. “But we know marriage is important in terms of fostering child well-being, family stability and economic well-being.”
MCC is also pursuing other initiatives in 2017, including raising greater awareness about pornography as a public health issue. The U.S. bishops issued a statement in 2015 on the topic titled “Create in Me a Clean Heart,” and MCC wants to advance the conversation on the issue, which is “not just a private matter, but one that has very public consequences and is harmful to the common good,” Adkins said.
MCC is supportive of potential bipartisan legislation that identifies pornography as a public health crisis and that looks at ways to evaluate pornography’s effects, particularly on minors, with an eye toward a broader initiative, such as a statewide public health campaign.
Adkins said MCC also will promote care for creation, hoping to build on “Laudato Si’,” Pope Francis’ encyclical on caring for the earth and its inhabitants. It is looking at proposals to incentivize beginning farmers and urban agriculture as well issues surrounding water quality and community infrastructure.
“Water is something we take deeply for granted, and we need to make sure we continue to provide safe drinking water for our communities,” he said. “Water stewardship is a big issue.”
For more information about MCC’s 2017 legislative priorities and to stay informed about important legislative activity as well as other activities related to the Church’s social ministry and policy advocacy, visit mncatholic.org and sign up for the Catholic Advocacy Network.