As the 2011-2012 legislative session in Pennsylvania comes to a close this month, some are already looking to next session and hoping for legislative victories on issues of importance. But as the saying goes, to get where you’re going, you’ve got to know where you’ve been. So before we turn the calendar to the new legislative session, let’s look at how issues of concern to Catholics fared in the 2011-2012 legislative session.
On the pro-life front, the legislature passed the Abortion Facilities Control Act, which holds abortion clinics to the same health and safety standards as other ambulatory surgical facilities. Prior to the passage of this legislation, it was clear that the law favored the abortion industry – not women’s health, as is often claimed.
Legislation was passed that gave parents of stillborn children a certificate of birth. Previously, parents of stillborn children were given no official recognition of their child, and pro-abortion advocates balked at the request to recognize a child in the womb. The passage of this legislation is important for the parents who experience this most painful and heartbreaking death.
Further pro-life success came in the state budget, where a line item to fund the state’s alternatives to abortion program, Real Alternatives, contained a 5.2 percent increase. In a year where many programs were cut or level-funded, the Pennsylvania Catholic Conference (PCC) is pleased with this recognition of the value of life from conception.
In the coming session, pro-life advocates will again work for legislation that will remove abortion funding from the yet-to-be-created state health care exchange under the new federal health care law.
Pro-life advocates also hope to revisit legislation that gives a pregnant woman the option to view her ultrasound when it is preformed to allow for a more fully informed decision. An ultrasound examination is already a standard practice in abortion clinics to determine gestational age or if the pregnancy is ectopic; it should be the mother’s right to choose for herself whether to view the ultrasound or not.
In the area of education, the popular Educational Improvement Tax Credit program was expanded from $75 million to $100 million and is now helping thousands more low and middle income families.
Further, a new program, nicknamed EITC 2.0, will help thousands more by creating special scholarships particularly for income-eligible students in the lowest performing 15 percent of public schools. This new legislation also allows individual school districts to set up their own local voucher program. For more information on this program and eligibility, visit www.pacatholic.org.
A piece of education-related legislation that was kick-started in this session and will likely be passed next session would protect religious educational ministries of young children from government interference. Under the current law, the state Department of Public Welfare (DPW) has blank-check authority to regulate all aspects of a church’s pre-school teaching ministry, including curriculum.
This is a classic church-state struggle, and after a positive vote in the Senate Education Committee and pledges from critical members of leadership in the Senate and the House, the PCC expects this legislation to pass in the next session.
In the area of concern for the poor in our state, the legislature reopened the Homeowners’ Emergency Mortgage Assistance Program (HEMAP). This program has helped thousands of Pennsylvanians over the years by providing loans to homeowners who were faced with foreclosure through no fault of their own.
In the first drafts of the state budget, the Human Services Block Grant, which includes state dollars that go to counties to provide a wide range of human services, was slated for a 20 percent cut. Upon final passage of the budget, the grant was cut by 10 percent. While the PCC was pleased that the full 20 percent cut was not made, we continue to advocate for funding for these vital services.
Further budget cuts saw the shuttering of General Assistance. This program, which allowed for a $205 stipend to the truly needy who had no other place to turn, was not funded and there is no program to replace it. Advocates for the poor, including PCC, are extremely disappointed with the elimination of the General Assistance program and will work cooperatively with the governor and DPW to find alternatives to assist those impacted, as the state budget must reflect concern for the most poor and needy in Pennsylvania.
Several bills dealing with immigration were introduced this session, but only one of these, the Public Works and Employment Verification Act, was passed and signed into law. This act requires contractors and sub-contractors on public works projects to verify new employee eligibility by using the federal E-Verify system. Other proposals ranging from denying public benefits to undocumented immigrants to revoking the professional licenses of employers who knowingly employ illegal immigrants did not pass.
The 2013-2014 legislative session will bring even more activity on issues that are of importance to Catholics in Pennsylvania. And the legislature needs to hear from you – their constituents . Visit PaCatholic.org to sign up for the Catholic Advocacy Network and become an agent of change in Pennsylvania. Imagine the voices of Pennsylvania’s 3 million Catholics speaking together for the common good!
Joelle Shea is the director of outreach for the Pennsylvania Catholic Conference – the public affairs arm of Pennsylvania’s Catholic bishops and the Catholic dioceses of Pennsylvania.