Catholics at the Capitol, the biennial event connecting Wisconsin Catholics to their state lawmakers in Madison, went virtual this year due to the coronavirus pandemic.
Hosted by the Wisconsin Catholic Conference, the day generally includes a gathering in Madison with keynote speakers, breakout sessions on current topics and meetings with legislators.
This year, a livestreamed meeting was emceed by Kim Vercauteren, WCC director. Bishop David Ricken, Green Bay, led with a prayer for the general assembly and governor in both English and Spanish.
Twenty-four people from dioceses across the state joined the 9 a.m. meeting. Attendees were encouraged to meet virtually with legislators between 10 a.m. and 4 p.m.
During the training portion of the Zoom meeting, Vercauteren explained the organization’s role in advocating on behalf of Wisconsin bishops, who are the governing board members. The WCC represents 1.2 million Catholics, including more than 700 parishes and 275 schools, as well as hospitals, colleges, universities and other related organizations.
“We have a heavy Catholic presence here in the state,” she said.
To answer the question of why the church engages in public policy discussions, she spoke of the sacred duty to one’s neighbor as well as the importance of supporting the church’s many service-based organizations that work in educating children, feeding the hungry, sheltering the homeless, visiting the imprisoned, helping the vulnerable and more.
The church also has a consistent moral framework – principles that are based on human dignity – that makes it an important voice in policy discussion, she added. Even for those who are not Catholic, the principals are based in natural law and reason, and the teaching is applicable.
In the church, she said, we “walk the walk while we talk the talk.”
What the WCC doesn’t do is engage in political campaigning, electoral politics, financing, etc.
Reviewing the structure of the state legislature and the biennial budget-building process, Vercauteren explained the budget is currently in formation, which is why the WCC holds its advocacy day at this time every two years.
Democratic Gov. Tony Evers’ budget proposal, which called for a 9.8-percent increase in spending, was set aside by the Republican-led legislature, which intends to begin from scratch with a new base budget.
WCC has been told by legislators that given the difficult year, lawmakers are planning to go back to constituents to find out what they want and need to see in the budget.
In-person state budget hearings were set for Rhinelander and UW-Stout, Menomonie, the week of April 19; a virtual hearing set for April 28 was open to a limited number of pre-registered participants.
The issues outlined in WCC’s 2021 talking points include support for pregnant women and new moms; a homelessness initiative; Medicaid expansion; funding for mental health care, particularly in rural areas with little access and above-average suicide rates; treatment and diversion programs that help non-violent first-time offenders avoid re-offending; expansion of the Earned Income Tax Credit; driver’s cards for immigrants; support for special education and school nutrition; and clean water legislation to fund replacement of lead pipes, aging septic systems and contaminated wells.
When approaching lawmakers, Vercauteren suggested using WCC materials, available on the website, to prepare. She suggests emphasizing between three and five issues that are a personal priority, versus trying to cover all the issues outlined by the WCC.
She also suggested focusing on faith and reason – discussing what is most important personally – as well as discussing the principles that motivate you and explain why a particular course of action is prudent.
No experience is necessary, she added. You don’t need to be an expert. Legislators are looking for feedback from their constituents.
The WCC’s suggested items to be removed from the proposed budget – which included funds to abortion providers, gender-neutral language, gender-identity employment rules and limits on educational choice, have already been removed by the joint committee on finance, according to Vercauteren.
Answering a question of how to respond when an aide or lawmaker said one of the policy issues should not be in the budget, Vercauteren explained how some items – such as issuing driver’s cards to undocumented people – may not seem to be budgetary issues, but may be community issues, because no one wants unlicensed, uninsured drivers out on the roads.
Another participant asked about the Earned Income Tax Credit – a child-based credit designed to help the working poor – which the WCC supports. She responded that research shows the EITC acts as a one-time lump sum payment that helps with non-monthly budgeted costs, such as property taxes, car repairs, healthcare expenses, etc. She identified the EITC as a means of helping families climb out of poverty.
“It is debt, frequently, that causes people to stay in poverty,” she said.
Infant mortality rates, another concern, are especially poor for Black families in Milwaukee, she added. Wisconsin’s average for all people has climbed to 6.1 deaths per 1,000 babies, now higher than the national average of 5.8 deaths, but the average is 14.28 deaths per 1,000 for non-Hispanic Black women, the highest in the nation.
It’s not just about healthcare, she advised. Stress on the mother is one of the biggest indicators of whether a child will survive the first year. Childcare, community support, whether they are involved in a faith community and whether they have stable housing are all factors.
She also spoke briefly about faith communities working cooperatively with public health agencies to alleviate infant mortality. The Catholic program “Walking with Moms in Need,” launched in the Diocese of Superior in 2020, is one such effort to connect faith-based and community support.
Vercauteren closed the 50-minute session by thanking participants for their advocacy efforts and encouraging them to show gratitude to lawmakers. The WCC’s website, www.wisconsincatholic.org, includes more resources for public use.