Catholic Spirit: Affordable housing, education choice included in bishops’ discussions with lawmakers


Archbishop John Nienstedt talks with St. Ambrose of Woodbury parishioner and State Rep. Kelly Fenton, R-Woodbury, in her office at the State Office Building March 5. All of the bishops in Minnesota came for the day at the Capitol annual event, coordinated by the Minnesota Catholic Conference. Dave Hrbacek/The Catholic Spirit

(by Maria Wiering)
March 6, 2015

Bishops from each of Minnesota’s six dioceses met with Gov. Mark Dayton and state lawmakers March 5 to discuss legislation on a range of issues, from immigration and education to poverty relief and commercial gestational surrogacy.

Archbishop John Nienstedt of St. Paul and Minneapolis said the meetings focused on particular bills in committees, not broad policy positions.

“All the legislators and the governor would know our strong positions on marriage, on life, our support for the poor,” he said. “We want to focus on specific pieces of legislation in this particular legislative period that are going to be practical.”

The bishops’ day at the Capitol is an annual event coordinated by the Minnesota Catholic Conference. MCC staff advocates for public policy on behalf of the bishops, who serve as its board members.

Participating this year were Archbishop Nienstedt, Bishop Andrew Cozzens and Bishop Lee Piché of St. Paul and Minneapolis; Bishop Michael Hoeppner of Crookston; Bishop Paul Sirba of Duluth; Bishop John LeVoir of New Ulm; Bishop Donald Kettler of St. Cloud; and Bishop John Quinn of Winona.

As in previous years, the bishops began the day with a breakfast meeting with Dayton, where they took turns championing specific bills and asking for the governor’s support, should the measures pass the Legislature.

Archbishop Nienstedt focused on poverty-relief measures, including Homes for All, which supports an additional $39 million in funding for affordable housing, and Prosperity for All, which would boost subsidies to Minnesota Family Investment Program (MFIP) recipients by $100 per month.

“Right now those [MFIP] families are only receiving about $532” per month, he told The Catholic Spirit. “There hasn’t been any change in that subsidy since 1986, so it’s really out of step with trying to keep up with inflation.”

Bishop Quinn said he presented on the importance of immigrants without a legal U.S. status to the state’s economy, and the bishops’ support of a measure to allow them to apply for a provisional drivers’ license.

“I found the governor very engaging, and he really listens,” he said.

Archbishop Nienstedt said Dayton joked that the breakfast was “very expensive,” as several of the bishops’ key measures would require state funding, but the archbishop perceived the governor to be “very open to the kind of concerns that we have.”

The state faces a projected $1.9 billion surplus, and Dayton’s original budget proposal, released Jan. 27, identifies education, working families and transportation infrastructure as his top funding priorities. The governor plans to release a supplemental budget soon.

Seeking common ground

After meeting with the governor, the bishops met with legislators, including leadership of both chambers, at the State Office Building adjacent to the Capitol. During a mid-day break, Bishop Cozzens said he felt the Democrat and Republican lawmakers with whom he had met had listened thoughtfully to the bishops’ policy positions.

“With both parties, we have areas that we have common ground, and with both parities, we have areas that we don’t have common ground,” Bishop Cozzens said.

In the meeting with the governor, he focused on school choice issues, including the bishops’ support for an educational savings account for children with disabilities, which would allow parents to determine how best to meet their children’s needs.

“Catholic social teaching says parents are the first educators of their children, and they have the right to be the first educators of their children and a right to choose the education they want to,” he said. “Many of our parents can’t afford the private school they think would be best for their child, so we’re also looking at ways to give them tax credits or tax breaks that would allow them to have that choice they would like to make for their child.”

The bishops see school choice issues as state cost-savers; Minnesota Catholic schools save taxpayers $400 million annually, Bishop Cozzens said.

The bishops met with most legislators as pairs. Bishop Cozzens teamed with Bishop Piché, who focused on Restore the Vote, a measure that would return voting privileges to people convicted of felonies but who have served their sentences.

“Since our goal is to try to rehabilitate them and get them integrated into community as productive and law-abiding citizens, we want to encourage that they would be granted an opportunity to return to the voting booth,” Bishop Piché said. “We’re finding support in both parties for this bill.”

Offering a ‘fuller picture’

The bishops and the state’s lawmakers are both “promoters of the common good,” Archbishop Nienstedt said. “I think there is common ground there. We don’t come at it from the same vantage point, but I think  it’s very complementary.”

Bishop Quinn added: “We bring a perspective that comes from a religious view, as well as moral teachings that can help legislators in their deliberations. That allows them to see a fuller picture as they debate these great questions and craft legislation for the common good.”

Jason Adkins, MCC executive director, said the state’s Catholic conference has focused on championing bills that could attract bipartisan support. Among those is a bill to establish a commission to study the issue of commercial surrogacy.

“There are so many considerations,” he said. “We’re obviously concerned about the exploitation of women and the commodification of children, but there are also significant health concerns, [and] the fact that surrogacy is now a $4 billion business in the United States, and there’s really an industry surrounding this [practice]. Even though we have ethical concerns with surrogacy arrangements, what we really need to understand is, if we’re going to have this in Minnesota … we need to make sure we properly regulate it.”

Policy bills need to pass out of at least one committee in both the state House and Senate by March 27 to be viable for the second part of the session, Adkins said, adding that the bishops were visiting during “a very exciting time” as that deadline approaches.