Conference defends poor, needy in budget scramble
by Joe Bollig
TOPEKA — The 2009 Kansas legislative session can be described in just three words: No. Easy. Choices.
When the economy is down, the state’s budget takes a beating, and the only choices the Legislature and the governor can make are hard ones.
“The first thing you have to understand about this session is that the budget is the preeminent issue,” said Michael Schuttloffel, executive director of the Kansas Catholic Conference.
“Because of the state of the economy, and our unique situation in Kansas, we’re facing a big-time budget crunch,” he said. “The big issue on the Legislature’s plate this session is trying to balance the budget.”
Not only do legislators need to craft a much leaner 2010 budget for consideration this session, but they also have to revisit the 2009 budget.
“We’re more than halfway done with fiscal year 2009,” said Schuttloffel, “but because of the worsening economic situation and worsening revenue situation, the Legislature has spent the past month going back into the 2009 budget to make cuts to program levels that they passed last year.”
The Kansas Catholic Conference’s goal this year is to make sure the interests of the poor, the vulnerable and the disabled are not forgotten in the rush to balance the budget.
“I think most members of the Legislature recognize that there are folks whose needs are particularly critical,” said Schuttloffel. “Every program in the budget has its defenders and constituency. And there are a lot of worthy programs that it’s painful to make cuts to.”
“Nonetheless,” he continued, “there are some programs that can absorb cuts and continue to function.”
Others, he said, cannot. “For these programs for the needy and disabled, it’s not a matter of tightening their belts; it’s a matter of going without food or the care they need to stay alive,” he noted. “We just want to shine a light on those people’s needs.”
One issue of particular interest to the conference is the Pregnancy Maintenance Initiative (PMI), which provides women in crisis pregnancies an array of support services.
“There are young children alive today because of [this program],” said Schuttloffel. “This again falls under that category of an especially critical program. There are other programs out there that are very worthy, but you have to ask yourself how many programs are out there where people are alive because of the program.”
Unfortunately, Gov. Kathleen Sebelius has recommended that the PMI be eliminated in the 2010 budget. For the 2009 budget, she has recommended a 25 percent cut.
“We think the PMI took a larger cut than was necessary,” said Schuttloffel, “but we are pleased that key members of the Legislature have indicated their commitment that the program survive and is funded appropriately in 2010.”
The conference is keeping its eye on funding for MediKan and general assistance. Schuttloffel has also talked with the directors of Catholic Charities in the four dioceses of the state.
“Pregnancy maintenance is a big, big concern for them,” he said. “Also, in general terms, we discussed what the state budget cuts will mean for them.”
“Cuts in the budget for the Department of Social and Rehabilitation Services will mean that there will be less assistance for the needy provided by the state,” he continued, “which means that people will increasingly look to Catholic Charities for help.”
In respect to the life issues, the conference is supporting two bills by Rep. Lance Kinzer, R-Olathe.
The first, the “Women’s Right to Know and See Act,” would offer women seeking abortion the choice of viewing sonograms or listening to fetal heartbeats before they proceed with their abortion. This bill also requires the posting of an “anti- coercion” sign, making it clear that women cannot be forced to have an abortion. Sixteen states have enacted similar legislation.
The second bill contains elements of last year’s Comprehensive Abortion Reform Act. Kansas has some of the strongest abortion laws in the nation, but Kansas is also the nation’s abortion capital, said Schuttloffel. The second bill would improve reporting requirements to demonstrate that Kansas law is being followed.
The conference is monitoring legislation concerning other issues important to the Catholic Church as well, including immigration and the death penalty.
Archbishop Joseph F. Naumann and the other bishops of Kansas will meet with Gov. Sebelius and legislators on Feb. 18 and 19. They will celebrate Mass for Catholic legislators on Feb. 19, followed by a breakfast.