Family aid, surrogacy and school choice among issues receiving attention during 2016 session

By Maria Wiering
For The Visitor

The Minnesota Legislature reconvenes March 8 for its 2016 session, scheduled to end May 23. For the Minnesota Catholic Conference, the public policy voice of the church in Minnesota, a shorter session than last year’s means focusing on a few key priorities, said Jason Adkins, MCC executive director.

In a Feb. 5 interview, he outlined MCC’s top three priorities for the legislative session:

  • Increasing the cash grant available through the Minnesota Family Investment Program.
    MFIP is the state’s basic welfare program for low-income families with children. The cash assistance has not increased since 1986, including adjustments for inflation.

“We think, especially because of the major increase in the cost of living for essentials since then, that school-booksthat’s a prudent thing to do, especially in a time of budget surplus,” Adkins said. “We always have to prioritize the needs of the poor and vulnerable in our public policy choices, especially in our spending decisions, and that’s really a top priority — working with other groups to ensure that’s part of our supplemental budget or any spending that gets passed.”

The state currently has $1.2 billion budget surplus.

The MFIP awards assistance based on the number of family members in a household. A family of four is eligible for $1,207 per month, with $586 for food and $621 in a cash grant. The average monthly cash assistance awarded by the program is $348 per family. According to the Minnesota Department of Human Services, the program is intended to help families move to financial stability. Parents are expected to work to be eligible for the program, and most families have a lifetime limit on MFIP of 60 months. In 2014, 24,752 adults and 60,154 children received cash assistance.

• Establishing a surrogacy commission.

Adkins said public awareness is growing around commercial surrogacy, the practice of women gestating a child implanted through in vitro fertilization for another party at the cost of tens of thousands of dollars. With that awareness is the question of whether Minnesota should recognize surrogacy contracts with law.

A 2002 task force on the Uniform Parentage Act stated that “additional analysis and legislation are needed to address public policy concerns involving gestational agreements, including whether such agreements should be permitted by law.” But according to a coalition that includes MCC, “no meaningful analysis has been done.”

Minnesota law does not address surrogacy. Because neither the state nor the federal government regulate the fertility industry, the number of annual surrogacy births in the state and country is unknown.

Meanwhile, other countries, including Canada, Mexico, Germany, France and Switzerland, have banned or restricted commercial surrogacy, and the European Parliament recently described the practice as one that “undermines human dignity.”

The Australian government recently launched a parliamentary inquiry into surrogacy, and Adkins said if they can study the issue “Down Under,” Minnesotans should be able to do it “Up North.”

“We think this is a serious issue about which much more conversation and debate need to happen,” Adkins said. “We’ve been proposing a legislative commission to really be an independent fact-finding body to study the many, many facets of surrogacy — market dynamics, the potential for commodifying women and children, and the many concerns being raised because of this industry all over the world.”

A bill supporting the legislative commission has passed the Minnesota House of Representatives and must pass the Senate Judiciary Committee before it goes to a floor vote.

• Expanding educational choice.

The Catholic Church in the U.S. has long advocated for more parental choice in education, ensuring that the state does not monopolize the educational process and parents are recognized as a child’s “first educators,” Adkins said. The MCC wants parents to be able to enroll their child in the public or non-public school of their choice.

“No child should have to suffer through a bad education simply because of his or her ZIP code,” he said. “We need to empower parents to give them the opportunity and the tools they need to find an environment where their child, their son or daughter, can really succeed.”

The MCC is part of Opportunity for All Kids, or OAK, a coalition of non-public school entities formed in 2015 to advocate for school choice.

Expanded school choice could also help close the achievement gap between low-income students and the general population, Adkins said. Wealthy people have school choice, he said, because they can afford to send their kids to the school they want. People with low incomes, however, often have fewer options, despite open enrollment and charter schools.

“We think this is a big civil rights issue,” he added, “because poor education and failing schools disproportionately impact people of color in many instances, and so how do we help close that achievement gap? We think creating more options is a better way of doing that.”

Expanding school choice also improves the common good by strengthening the marketplace for education, Adkins said. When students can go to the school of their choice, “we’re going to have a stronger and better-educated workforce in the coming years, and that boosts Minnesota’s economy as well,” he said.

He said the issue has the most traction it’s had in 20 years. During now-dead negotiations around a 2016 special session, legislators discussed the issue of expanding education tax credits through the lens of racial inequality.

Although Minnesota offers a K-12 education tax credit and deduction, the tax credit doesn’t apply to tuition.

“What we’re trying to do is get the existing tax credits to also include tuition, raise the credit, and at the same time, raise eligibility,” Adkins said.

Maria Wiering is editor of The Catholic Spirit, newspaper of the Archdiocese of St. Paul and Minneapolis.