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MCC calls legislative session ‘extremely successful’

The Catholic Review

It was a good 90 days in Annapolis for the Maryland Catholic Conference (MCC).

At the April 11 close of the 2011 legislative session, the public-policy arm of the state’s Catholic bishops got much of what it wanted.

The MCC helped defeat a measure that would have legalized same-sex marriage in Maryland. The group was a key proponent of a newly passed bill that provides in-state tuition for certain undocumented immigrants. It was also a driving force behind a unanimously passed bill establishing a umbilical cord blood transplant program in Maryland.

MCC leaders successfully saw the state’s textbook and technology loan program for nonpublic schools students funded at the same level as last year, $4.4 million. They also made sure there were no major cuts to the state’s social welfare programs.

“Overall, it stands as an extremely successful session,” said Mary Ellen Russell, MCC executive director. “While we faced emotional opposition from both sides of the aisle on various issues we worked on, I think the integrity and consistency of the church’s moral vision was evident to all that we worked with.”

Gay marriage and in-state tuition were the two hot-button issues of the session, dominating much of the debate. Archbishop Edwin F. O’Brien spoke out strongly against same-sex marriage and in support of in-state tuition.

The same-sex marriage bill passed the Senate, but died on the floor of the House of Delegates when it was recommitted to the House Judiciary Committee without a vote March 11.

“The final defeat of the bill to redefine marriage was a real testimony to the hard work of so many people and the value of solid grassroots organizing and collaboration throughout the faith community in Maryland,” Russell said.

The in-state tuition bill, approved by the General Assembly on the last day of the session, will allow undocumented students to pay in-state tuition at community colleges. To be eligible, students must have attended Maryland high schools for three years and their families must pay state taxes. Students may transfer to a four-year state college at the in-state rate after completing 60 credit hours.

One of the MCC’s top priorities was passing a bill to better regulate abortion clinics, which are currently governed as doctor’s offices. The bill, which died in committee, would have regulated abortion clinics as ambulatory surgical centers.

Nancy Paltell, MCC associate director for respect for life, was pleased that the State Department of Health and Mental Hygiene has promised to issue its own regulations.

“We hope the regulations have some teeth and set a good, high bar for safety standards,” Paltell said. “If they don’t, we will be back next year to change the statute.”

Ellen Robertson, MCC associate director for education and family, was disappointed that a bill failed that would have established a long-sought business tax credit for donations in support of Maryland schools.

“BOAST” – Building Opportunities for all Students and Teachers in Maryland – would have provided a state tax credit to businesses that donate to scholarship organization for students attending nonpublic schools.

Nonprofit organizations that provide enrichment programs for public school students would have also benefitted from the program, as would have teachers in public and nonpublic schools who would have received professional development grants.

“We have work to do in the committee,” Robertson said, noting that as in previous years, the bill died in the House of Delegates Ways and Means Committee, chaired by Montgomery County Del. Sheila E. Hixson.

Russell said the MCC’s lobbying efforts would be impossible without the support of bishops, pastors and Catholics in the pews. The group also worked closely with church leaders of other faiths on several important issues, she said.

“I think we learned a lot of lessons this year about the role of the voice of conscience in legislative matters,” Russell said. “There are clearly new members of the Legislature who are interested in preventing issues from becoming a simple matter of partisanship.”