Commentary

Crossing over to the other side

Mark Peters

When I was an undergraduate political science major at the University of Wisconsin, Madison, I was given an assignment to pick a side on an issue du jour and build a case in favor of my position over the course of a week. When class gathered a week later to form debate teams, I was prepared and convinced by the “facts” that proved my rightness. In hindsight, I was more than confident; I was smug, arrogant even, until the instructor told us the crucial last part of the assignment — switch sides!

I’ve worked with, watched, and listened to legislators from both sides of the aisle since becoming executive director of the Lutheran Coalition for Public Policy in 1995. I’ve learned that reasonable people can disagree about what is good and prudent. I’ve also learned that more important than politicking and policy ideals is the duty written into the Minnesota State Constitution that we govern to provide for “the security, benefit, and protection of the people.”

State budget negotiations are stalled as of this writing, with both sides declaring the other’s last proposal a “nonstarter.” As brothers and sisters in Christ, we believe the concern for our most vulnerable neighbors is a shared starting point. Minnesota’s six ELCA bishops joined with the six Roman Catholic bishops and archbishop in sending a letter to the governor and legislators on March 15, 2011, stating that: “The most telling measure of how well we care for each other is to consider how we treat those who are most vulnerable among us.”

Special concern for the most vulnerable

Our elected officials affirm the obligation to prioritize the preservation of a safety net of critical services for our neighbors in greatest need. In their own words:

* Governor Mark Dayton: “[My] budget is far from perfect. But it is critical that we protect the needs of the poor first, not last.”

* Speaker of the House Kurt Zellers in November: “Protecting and providing for our most vulnerable in society have always been our priorities.”

* Senate Majority Leader Amy Koch on MPR in November: “Education, and protecting vulnerable Minnesotans, is a top priority.”

* Sen. David Hann, chair of the Senate Health and Human Services Committee: “We’ll do everything we can do to protect the vulnerable.”

* Rep. Jim Abeler, chair of the House Health and Human Services Committee: “At the end, we’ll be hopefully protecting nursing homes, protecting care for the disabled, and keeping a safety net intact.”

General Assistance (GA) and the Minnesota Family Investment Program (MFIP) provide a level of dignity for people with severe mental and/or physical disabilities. Medical doctors and the federal government have deemed the vast majority of people who collect these funds ($203 and $50 per month, respectively) so severely disabled that they cannot work.

A disabled single mother of two receiving MFIP benefits survives on less than $14,000 a year. Consider what it means for that family to lose $50 each month. It is frightening that our neighbors whose only monthly income is $203 could not afford basic necessities.

Does government represent your values when “reform” leads to a hard free-fall landing for neighbors such as these?

Does government represent your values when “reform” leads to a hard free-fall landing for neighbors such as these? I maintain that it does not. If you agree, you should join me in urging your elected officials to work earnestly to fairly raise sufficient revenue to meet these most basic obligations.

GA and MFIP are highlighted here as public policy indicators of how our budget debate has veered astray from the shared principle to preserve a safety net and protect the most vulnerable. This is repeatedly affirmed by our faith leaders and elected representatives.

With almost every budget proposal labeled a “nonstarter,” I wonder if our elected leaders could reach a compromise if they looked through the eyes of the so-called “other side.” Something fresh could be “put on the table” as a new starting point. This indeed requires an amount of grace and humility, an essential lesson I learned as a college student and have carried forward into my work of policy advocacy.

Mark Peters is an ELCA pastor serving his 16th year as executive director of LCPPM, a partnership ministry of the six Minnesota ELCA synods. Interns John Gabrielson and Amy Chatelaine contributed research to this article.

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