By Maria Wiering
ANNAPOLIS – As the Maryland General Assembly begins its 2013 session Jan. 9, the Maryland Catholic Conference anticipates facing several important issues, but none as divisive as the DREAM Act and same-sex marriage, controversial legislation that became ballot initiatives last year.
The atmosphere “will be less contentious than we’ve seen for some time,” said Mary Ellen Russell, executive director of the MCC, which advocates for public policy on behalf of the state’s bishops.
However, the MCC forecasts that the 90-day session will include legislation on a number of “major issues for the church,” including a push to repeal the state’s death penalty, which the MCC has long supported as a significant pro-life issue.
An analysis of that and other legislative issues follows.
Gov. Martin J. O’Malley led a 2009 effort to repeal the death penalty, which failed its original intent but led to more strident evidence requirements for death penalty sentencing. Because of the governor’s support, repeal advocates hope to push legislation through before the end of his term of office in 2014.
In December, Baltimore Archbishop William E. Lori wrote O’Malley to commend him on his longtime support for death penalty repeal, which he described as “a goal that the Catholic Church has long and vigorously promoted as a means of furthering the culture of life in our state.”
Archbishop Lori urged O’Malley to make repealing the death penalty a legislative goal for this session and assured him that Maryland’s Catholics would join him in advocacy. The letter was copied to State Senate President Thomas V. “Mike” Miller Jr. and House Speaker Michael E. Busch.
Most Marylanders support death penalty repeal, according to Maryland Citizens Against State Execution.
State-supported efforts to reduce gun violence were under way before the December shooting deaths of 26 elementary students and staff members of a Newtown, Conn., school, but the incident has heightened interest in gun control legislation.
Last year, the legislature established the Task Force to Study Access of Individuals with Mental Illness to Regulated Firearms, an issue underscored by the Newtown massacre, as well as mass shootings in Colorado, Wisconsin and Minnesota in 2012. The MCC expects legislation to be introduced based on the report’s recommendations.
The MCC supports bans on assault weapons and “reasonable efforts” to reduce gun violence, as well as an increase in mental health assistance, said Chris Ross, MCC associate director for social concerns.
In addition to supporting efforts to repeal the death penalty and curb gun violence, the conference will continue to advocate for pro-life policies that build bipartisan relationships, said MCC associate director Nancy Paltell.
This session the MCC will support legislation to promote adoption among birth parents, advance funding for adult stem-cell research for sickle-cell disease, and advocate for published research results and numbers of patients treated through state-funded stem-cell research, Paltell said.
It will also back legislation to require the state to collect data on abortion rates.
“There are a lot of good public health reasons we should collect this information,” Paltell said.
The data would allow the state to calculate its teen pregnancy rate, track abortion complications and identify what groups of women are most at risk for unwanted pregnancies, she said.
Maryland is one of four states that do not report abortion statistics.
“In Maryland, the concern is that our abortion rates are so much higher than other states around the country,” Russell said. “Regardless of where people stand on the issue of abortion, I think everyone can agree that we want to see that rate reduced, and we simply can’t even know how to go about that if we don’t have information about how many abortions are being performed in our state.”
The Guttmacher Institute, the abortion industry’s research arm, estimates that more than 34,000 abortions occur annually in Maryland.
O’Malley is expected to introduce a state budget Jan. 16, which could be made more difficult by the uncertainty of continued federal funding for state programs, Ross said. Congress will again face critical budget decisions in March, which could lead to wide-ranging funding cuts.
An advocate for economic and social justice, the MCC supports policies that give priority to Maryland’s poor and vulnerable citizens. Among its concerns is preserving funding in the state budget for “safety net” programs that prevent vulnerable families from falling into poverty, Ross said.
The MCC will also continue to oppose measures that make immigrants’ efforts to integrate into society more difficult, he said.
As in years past, the MCC will continue to promote initiatives that give assistance to nonpublic school students and their families, Russell said.
Among these initiatives is the Maryland education credit, which would provide businesses with a state income tax credit for financial assistance contributions to schools.
The MCC also supports continuing or increasing funding in the state budget for textbooks at nonpublic schools.
Throughout the session, the MCC plans to build on its network of politically engaged Catholics that expanded during last year’s efforts to promote the DREAM Act and traditional marriage, Russell said. After holding its annual lobby night in Annapolis at St. Mary for many years, the MCC is moving the Feb. 18 event to the larger, nearby St. John Neumann.
Event attendees learn about the MCC’s legislative priorities and meet with their lawmakers.
The Maryland Catholic Conference’s annual Lobby Night is Feb. 18 from 3-8:30 p.m. at St. John Neumann in Annapolis. Register at mdcathcon.org.
Copyright (c) Jan. 11, 2013 CatholicReview.org