2021 Legislature: MCC seeks to protect poor, vulnerable as COVID relief takes center stage

Joe Towalski, Central Minnesota Catholic – First published January 3, 2021

The 2021 state legislative session begins Jan. 5 in St. Paul. A main focus for lawmakers will be providing relief and assistance to help Minnesotans with the ongoing challenges posed by the coronavirus pandemic, especially its impact on jobs and housing.

“There are people facing evictions if some of the eviction protections are lifted. Landlords are certainly facing the crunch. Small businesses are also facing the crunch,” said Jason Adkins, executive director of Minnesota Catholic Conference. “So, everyone is obviously struggling, and the challenge is how to meet those needs and provide the right forms of assistance with the reality that the resources to do so are extremely limited.”

Thankfully, the preliminary economic picture looks better than it did in May, he said. An early December budget forecast showed a surplus of $640 million for the last six months of the current budget biennium, which ends June 30. However, there will be a projected budget shortfall of about $1.3 billion for the 2022-2023 biennium. The state currently has about a $2.5 billion budget reserve it could draw upon.

“We hope that the right forms of assistance will be distributed and without a lot of cuts,” Adkins said. “That’s going to be the main topic that animates a lot of the legislative discussions during 2021” as legislators tackle the creation of the next two-year state budget.

As the official public policy voice of the Catholic Church in Minnesota, Adkins said MCC recognizes that budgets “are moral documents that demonstrate our priorities as a community, and we’re certainly monitoring those discussions and trying to offer a framework in which those challenges are met.”

There will likely be a push to find alternative sources of revenue to minimize any budget cuts, and this could include attempts to legalize recreational marijuana and expand gambling.

“Although there very well could be a need for additional revenue … this is the wrong way to go about it,” he said. “It would legalize and/or expand something that [promotes] a harmful social dynamic. It should not be used to plug holes in the budget because it’s going to create longer-term costs down the road.”

Education is an area that has faced a variety of challenges during the pandemic. Catholic schools have done “extraordinary work” to create safe environments for learning even as they have experienced financial challenges wrought by the pandemic, Adkins said. Therefore, any COVID-related assistance that state lawmakers earmark for education should include Catholic and other private schools, he said.

“We’ve all shared in the public health challenges, so we should all share in the relief that’s dedicated to education when governments create relief packages,” he said. “Whether that’s at the federal level with the CARES Act or for ongoing discussions related to COVID relief that has an education focus, we believe that those funds should be directed in a per-pupil way that treats non-public school students equitably.”

The pandemic also has highlighted the need to reform how services, such as transportation and counseling services, are provided to private schools, Adkins said. State law provides for such services to be provided to private school students at the same level as public school students. But when public schools opt for distance learning, private school students may lose their transportation and only have access to counseling services remotely, if at all.

“There are some opportunities for fixes on a lot of the non-public pupil aid programs that could be really, really helpful,” Adkins said.

MCC strives to put a “circle of protection” around programs that help the poor and vulnerable, he said. “The vast majority of the state budget is consumed by education and human services. Those are the places that people often look to for cuts, but those areas speak to the deepest needs of Minnesotans. When we talk about investing in our people and investing in our future, those are our cornerstone expenditures. So MCC identifies key policies that impact the poor and vulnerable and works to strengthen those through reforms, especially in times of need.”

Among the other issues MCC will be monitoring during the 2021 legislative session:

Read the complete article on the Central Minnesota Catholic website.