ELCA Lutherans, mainline Protestants, Roman Catholics, Jews, find common voice
Joint Religious Legislative Coalition coodrinates their efforts
The chief lobbyist for an organization dedicated to religion-related issues has expressed serious concerns about the performance of the 2001 Minnesota Legislature.
Brian Rusche, executive di-rector of the Joint Religious Legislative Coalition (JRLC), in which ELCA Lutherans play an active role, said the gap between the positions taken by the House and Senate this year was the greatest he has seen in the 13 sessions he has been on the job.
“It was almost as if they were speaking to two different publics — one that wants reduced taxes and wants to believe that public services just sort of happen, and the other that is more willing to invest in the health and future of the state and knows that that requires public investment and a tax system to support it,” Rusche de-clared.
In the past, each house of the Legislature had adherents of the two different approaches and the positions they took were a blend of the two, although the emphasis in the two bodies was different, he indicated.
But this year both houses were intentionally passing ex-treme bills, Rusche maintained, not because they really thought they were best for the state but to stake out a better position for themselves when the measures came up for reconciliation in conference committees.
The JRLC director said he didn’t think this situation was entirely the fault of legislators. Citizens have to be more engaged in watching the legislative process, holding the two bodies accountable for the ideas they advance and the course they’re charting.
“If we relegate this process over to elected officials and experts, we’re going to get an inferior outcome,” he said. “My passion right now is to try to urge faithful citizenship.”
The JRLC got its start in 1971 when spokesmen for the Minnesota Council of Churches, representing Protes-tants, and the Minnesota Catholic Conference discovered that some 80% of the positions they were advocating at the Legislature were similar. They started working together on these social-justice issues to increase their clout. They were soon joined by the Jewish Community Relations Council of Minnesota and the Dakotas. The three groups formally chartered the JRLC and allocated funds to open an office that year.
The American Muslim Council’s Minnesota Chapter has had “observer” status in the coalition for the past five years, participating in board meetings and activities while it weighs a decision on whether to become a full member.
The ELCA is the only Lutheran body active in the JRLC because no other Lutheran group is a member of the social-action-oriented Minnesota Council of Churches.
The groundwork on issues the coalition will advocate begins with position papers put together between sessions by Rusche, an ordained elder in the Presbyterian Church (USA), and the JRLC’s research director — Dr. James Casebolt. Casebolt is a graduate of the ELCA’s Texas Lutheran University, holds a doctorate from the School of Religion at the University of Iowa and has a master’s degree from the Humphrey Institute for Public Affairs at the University of Minnesota.
To become policy statements of the JRLC, position papers must be ratified by the boards of directors of all three sponsoring groups.
“We don’t do anything without all three on board,” Rusche said. “Our work never pushes hard against a consensus agenda that we strive to attain. If we don’t think the consensus is there, we don’t do it.”
The JRLC has its own executive board, a 12-member group made up of four members from each of the three sponsoring organizations. This board oversees the day-to-day operations of the four-member office staff and also interprets past policy statements to decide whether they apply to issues currently before the Legislature and whe-ther a stand should be taken.
The Rev. James Nelson, who does interim ministry work in the Minneapolis Area Synod of the ELCA, serves as treasurer of the JRLC board, and the Rev. Sue Tjornehoj, an assistant to Bishop Mark Hanson of the St. Paul Area Synod, is currently vice-chair of the board. She’s expected to move up to chair when the next rotation of officers among the sponsoring groups takes place.
Once the JRLC decides to take a stand on an issue, it is Rusche who meets with legislators at the capitol to discuss it and does most of the testifying before committees. He does call in other veteran coalition leaders like current ELCA St. Paul Area Bishop Hanson and his predecessor, the Rev. Lowell Erdahl, for some appearances before committees.
The JRLC also mobilizes the 3,550 individual members in congregations that make up its Legislative Network to make phone calls and write letters to legislators and arrange visits with them when they’re back home in their districts. The number of people in this network has tripled in the last dozen years.
Another weapon in the coalition’s lobbying arsenal is the “Day on the Hill,” which brings individual members to the capitol once during each session to visit with legislators and other state-government leaders. A best-ever total of 550 persons took part in the event this year, according to Rusche.
There are other signs of growth in the operations of the coalition since its beginning in 1971. The number of staff members has grown from one full-time worker to 3.5, with Rusche and researcher Casebolt joined by Norma Bourland, director of Congregations Concerned for Children, a specialized network within the coalition that works on children’s issues, and the Rev. Becky Myrick, employed half-time as a congregation organizer.
The JRLC offices are in the Minnesota Church Center, a building owned by the Min-nesota Council of Churches (MCC), at 122 West Franklin Avenue in Minneapolis.
The budget of the JRLC has leaped from $10,000 in its first year to $250,000, with 45% of its core funding coming from the MCC, another 45% from the Minnesota Catholic Conference and 10% from the Jewish Community Relations Council.
Rusche says the JRLC has been out front in securing passage of legislation in several areas over the years. It was the faith community that led the way in pushing for a series of laws against hate crimes, he said, and also two measures in line with its lobbying for state and local taxes that are “mildly progressive.”
Those tax measures were the working family income tax credit and a requirement that the State Revenue Department produce a report every two years analyzing, by income group, who pays taxes in the state .
The JRLC was also one of the major interest groups whose advocacy led to creation of the state’s MinnesotaCare health insurance program for low-income families and which designed the Minnesota Family Investment Plan for families moving from welfare to work, Rusche said.
Among other issues where the JRLC has taken a stand and had an impact, he said, are its opposition to the death penalty; support for sustainable agriculture policies and revitalizing rural communities; support for firearms regulation; and backing of measures to enhance ethics in government.
Probably the best remembered setback for the JRLC was its opposition to a state lottery, which voters subsequently approved as a constitutional amendment. However, the coalition has helped defeat any expansion of state-authorized gambling since then.
If not a failure, Rusche counts it at least as unfinished business that JRLC has been unable to convince the Legisla-ture to allocate major capital funds to solving the affordable housing crisis. And he is puzzled that lawmakers have failed to make meaningful progress in the early education of very young children.
“The need for child care is very pressing and the quality is bad,” he asserted. “Our child-care system is fragmented, terribly underfunded and understaffed.”