Advocates for needy fear today’s political climate


When the homeless and hungry came knocking on the front door of her downtown Anoka church, Naomi Peterson realized she needed to get involved.

“We get to our church door pretty much every day people needing money for food, for the bus,” and sometimes a place to sleep, Peterson, a retired public school teacher, told me.

So Peterson joined others from a new social justice group at First Congregational Church of Anoka, UCC, to help co-host a recent town hall meeting with legislator Rep. Jim Abeler, R-Anoka, the House Health and Human Services finance committee chairman. About 80 attended.

Outside the Capitol walls, advocates for those whose lives would be most affected by funding cuts in housing, disabilities, transportation, childcare, health care, career training and other social service programs are orchestrating efforts to connect those who control the state’s purse strings with ordinary voters. This weekend, as well, many legislators are hosting community town halls, and advocates invite voters to speak their minds. 

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Advocates say the stakes are high this year, and time is short.

Early this morning, the Republican-controlled Minnesota House approved massive cuts – about $1.7 billion over two years – in health and social service programs. Lawmakers approved the cuts with a 70-62 vote, mostly along party lines, after a lengthy debate.

A similar measure has already passed the GOP Senate. The state faces a projected $5 billion budget deficit over two years, and today’s House action now sets up important budget talks with Republican leaders and DFL Gov. Mark Dayton.  Republicans want to solve the budget problem without tax increases, and Dayton wants to raise taxes on high-wage earns as part of his budget solution.

The Dayton administration has criticized many parts of the GOP budget plan, and advocates for the poor say their fears are tempered with hope that governor will save programs for the poor with his  veto power. Consequently, some legislators and others see the health and human services bills as still open for discussion.

‘More panic’

The political climate is different this year, says Brian Rusche, executive director of the  Joint Religious Legislative Coalition, a sponsor of the Anoka forum. “I think I sense among local officials, city and county, more panic, more willingness to kind of tell the story of what this means and to communicate to the public what is at stake.”

And one of the roles of the faith community – his group is governed by Catholic, Jewish, Muslim and Protestant organizations and boasts a listserv of 13,000 – Rusche says, is to call the public’s attention to the wide chasm between needs and funding.

“We have a higher calling. We have to see ourselves as inside the problem, instead of watching these gladiators go at it,” he says. “If you want your potholes filled and to send your kids to a good school and you don’t want your neighbor to starve, you’ve got to pay something fair. We’ve all got to do it.” 

Downtown Congregations to End Homelessness urges those on their email list to  participate in the Joint Religious Legislative Coalition’s frequent  webinar Legislative updates on health and human services proposals.

The Minnesota Coalition for the Homeless suggests voters write letters to the editor of their local newspapers with key talking points including the message that a $5 billion deficit is “challenging” but: “the budget reflects our values and there must be a moral floor we will not cross.”       

A Minnesota Without Poverty email exhorts voters to “take action now” to encourage legislators to implement recommendations for ending poverty in Minnesota by 2020. 

Other groups, too, plead that people call or write their legislators urging them to preserve funding of programs aiding the poor. “This is a critical moment…” declares an Internet message from Growth & Justice, a progressive think tank,  suggesting folks contact their legislators to voice serious concerns with a “cuts-only” approach to the budget.     

“It’s like six different ways they’re asking the same families who did not create this deficit to shoulder the payment of this deficit,” Rusche says. For instance, proposed cuts in day care assistance, job training and public transportation would make life harder for  the poor, the disabled and those seeking jobs, as would decreased renters’ credits and increased property taxes, he says.

I was reminded of the dramatic question he’d posed in an interview with me months ago regarding the now $5 billion budget deficit and the ripple effects of budget cuts: “How do you do this without sending families over the edge, onto the streets, so that it puts schools, neighborhoods and towns into a death spiral?”

Many people are concerned about the enormous health and human services budget cuts, says Liz Kuoppala, executive director of the Minnesota Coalition for the Homeless, an advocacy group with 150 member organizations.

“I think we still have a long way to go in Minnesota on this dialog on raising revenues,” she says, adding that a “strong safety net” of support services is essential to a good economic recovery plan.

Put the money in the hands of the people who will spend it, the people who need it, Kuoppala says.

And, of course, it’s not over til the Legislature turns its lights out for the session. On May 11 the JRLC, joined by other groups, will try a different tack, a vigil. They’ll light candles and park themselves in the Capitol Rotunda.

“We’re going to pray and we’re going to sing and read a litany of readings,” Rusch says.

Upcoming event

Homelessness in our Community: Current Trends, State Budget Decisions & the Role of the Edina/Bloomington Faith Community, 8:30 a.m. to 10 a.m. on April 9, Colonial Church of Edina.

Co-sponsors: Downtown Congregations to End Homelessness, Joint Religious Legislative Coalition, Catholic Charities Office for Social Justice, The Minnesota Coalition for the Homeless, Corporation for Supportive Housing and the Minnesota Housing Partnership.