Life issues, safety-net top legislative agenda

With a $2 billion deficit looming, the state’s bishops advocate for the poor, vulnerable and unborn

Defeating legislation that would mandate abortion coverage in health insurance plans and preserving funding for safety-net services will be top priorities for the bishops of Washington state during the 105-day state legislative session, which began Jan. 14.

Life and death
Two bills before the Legislature would require health insurance plans which cover maternity care to also provide coverage for abortions. HB 1044 and SB 5009 are new versions of last year’s bills, which passed the House but failed in the Senate amid concerns about conflicts with the federal Hyde/Weldon amendment.

The amendment prohibits any federal funding from being distributed to governments that mandate abortion coverage. HB 1044 and SB 5009 would make Washington the first state to mandate abortion coverage in insurance plans.

“This legislation would not only violate federal law, but it would also violate freedom of conscience for the individual,” said Dominican Sister Sharon Park, executive director of the Washington State Catholic Conference, which represents the state’s bishops on matters of public policy.

She added that disregarding the Hyde/Weldon amendment, which protects the consciences of employers, could cost the state federal funding for health care, labor and education.

The bishops also will support legislation abolishing the death penalty. They have said the application of the death penalty is deeply flawed and biased by factors such as race and quality of legal representation.

Pope John Paul II’s encyclical “Evangelium Vitae” states that the death penalty is too extreme unless “it would not be possible to otherwise defend society.” Such cases were concluded to be “rare, if not practically non-existent” in society today.

A bill was introduced last year to abolish the death penalty, but did not come up for a vote.

Preserving the safety net
Another concern for the bishops is the state’s ongoing budget crisis. According to forecasts revenues are expected to fall $1 billion short of current spending levels, and a recent state Supreme Court ruling may entail another $1 billion in funding for public schools.

New taxes to close the expected budget gap are very unlikely, said Sister Sharon, since the public voted in November to reaffirm the two-thirds majority requirement to increase taxes.

Because significant budget cuts are anticipated, maintaining funding for essential social services for the poor and vulnerable is a top priority for the bishops.

Programs at risk of being cut include Housing and Essential Needs, which provides for the mentally and physically disabled, as well as the Housing Trust Fund, which supports the construction of affordable housing for low-income families.

“These programs have already been deeply cut, and the moral and human cost of cutting any more would be too great,” said Sister Sharon. “Catholics have a moral obligation to get involved in public policy — we are our brothers’ and sisters’ keepers.”

January 24, 2013