Budget-cut proposals dominated conversations local Catholics had with lawmakers during the 2011 Public Policy Day in Albany Tuesday, March 8.
Groups from all areas of the diocese traveled to the state capital to meet with legislators, celebrate Mass at the nearby Cathedral of the Immaculate Conception, and take part in youth and adult workshops on public policy.
Bishops and lawmakers alike also paused during the day to praise the work of Jack Balinsky, the Diocese of Rochester’s director of Catholic Charities, who was presented with the state bishops’ J. Alan Davitt Award for Exemplary Service. Balinsky also received during the event an honorary resolution passed by the state Legislature.
This year, Public Policy Day’s priorities were: opposing the "Reproductive Health Act" abortion bill and supporting alternatives to abortion; supporting comprehensive conscience protection for individuals and institutions; preserving Catholic schools; protecting the poor and those harmed by the economic downturn; maintaining the health-care infrastructure and health-care coverage for low- and moderate-income individuals; supporting juvenile justice reform that results in a system that better serves youths and the community; and opposing the redefinition of marriage.
The state’s fiscal crisis dominated conversations around many of these issues, said Brigit Hurley, parish social-ministry coordinator for Rochester’s Catholic Family Center and Catholic Charities of Livingston County.
"I think a lot of people are acknowledging that there are a lot of good programs that may not survive this year’s budget, so it was not a happy conversation," she said.
While acknowledging the need for cuts, she said Catholics from the diocese also delivered petitions advocating for budget solutions that help remove barriers to employment through child-care and transportation subsidies.
A group of men from Catholic Family Center’s Freedom House, a residential drug-treatment program, took part in the trip and met with legislators, said John Barbaro, intake counselor with Freedom House.
"The men were able to articulate that the need to remain focused on the needs of the poor and vulnerable is so very important in view of the state’s financial situation," Barbaro said.
He said the Freedom House residents conveyed their gratitude for social-welfare programs, which he noted have supported the men as they go through the process of kicking addictions.
Marcia DesJardin, a 17-year-old senior at Churchville-Chili High School and a parishioner of St. Vincent de Paul Parish in Churchville, noted that in speaking with legislators, she focused on the proposed elimination of state funding to the Maternity and Early Childhood Foundation, a nonprofit foundation that distributes grants to programs statewide that help low-income expectant and new parents.
"We think it’s an important alternative to abortion," Marcia said.
The goals of the foundation are to promote proper prenatal care, improve birth outcomes, and support positive parenting and healthy childhood development. The program in 2010-11 funded part of Catholic Charities of Livingston County’s Mentor Moms program and Mercy Residential Services programs in Monroe County, which provide support and housing to low-income pregnant and parenting teens.
Laura Opelt, executive director of Catholic Charities of Steuben County, voiced several worries about proposed budget cuts during her meetings with Assemblyman Phil Palmesano and Sen. Tom O’Mara. Opelt requested the preservation of programs related to juvenile-delinquency prevention, health care, homelessness, child care and transportation for low-income workers.
"I started with some shocking poverty statistics in our country and New York state, and expressed concern that no one is taking the lead in looking out for the poor and vulnerable," Opelt said, adding that "with the cuts being proposed, we’re going to see even more people fall victim to poverty."
Lynda Lowin, Catholic Charities of Steuben County’s justice-and-peace director, noted that petitions were presented to Palmesano, from the 136th Assembly District; and O’Mara, who represents the Senate’s 53rd District. These documents were signed at Steuben-area parishes on Public Policy Weekend, Feb. 12-13, in support of the diocesan Public Policy Committee’s 2010-11 advocacy priority, "Working Out of Poverty/Option for the Poor."
Opelt said the discussions with Palmesano and O’Mara were very cordial. She acknowledged that politicians face a daunting task in this difficult economy to carve out a budget, but expressed confidence that Catholic Charities’ concerns will receive careful consideration.
"It’s really going to be up to our legislative representatives to fight for these programs and get them back as line items," she said.
Paul Marx, director of Schuyler County services for Catholic Charities of Chemung/Schuyler, said his region is facing the same issues as those cited by Opelt. He noted that he and Opelt also attended the New York State Council of Catholic Charities Directors meeting on March 7 — the day before Public Policy Day — where they heard presentations by state commissioners from five executive departments and later had the chance for dialogue. Marx said he felt the state officials took attendees’ feedback seriously.
Students from DeSales High School in Geneva also attended Public Policy Day to meet with their local legislators.
Gerald Macaluso, principal, said he brought three students to Albany because he wanted them to gain a better understanding of how local Catholics put their spiritual and political beliefs into practice, and to be able to meet some of their local representatives.
"It was a very positive experience, I believe. It was both enjoyable as well as educational," Macaluso said.
Macaluso and the sophomore and two juniors began their morning at the state capital with Mass, which New York Archbishop Timothy M. Dolan celebrated at the Cathedral of the Immaculate Conception.
"It was very nice. Archbishop Dolan is obviously not only a very spiritual and intellectual person, but he’s a very articulate and gregarious person," Macaluso said.
The four DeSales representatives also met with Geneva-based Assemblyman Brian Kolb (R-129th district), and shared with him the Catholic Church’s views on abortion and on the current state of education in New York. Macaluso said he talked to Kolb about equitability between various types of public and private schools and the possibility of offering education tax credits. He also told Kolb he understands the state’s current financial situation, yet firmly believes nonpublic schools must receive all the money they are entitled to, he said.
"With the budget situation as it is, it’s going to be a very interesting year," he remarked.
Williamson teens Luke Moll and Brian Doran, meanwhile, met with Sen. Michael Nozzolio (R-54th district), and told him how Catholics feel about such issues as same-sex marriage. They also told him how important it is to help the poor and disadvantaged, and to protect innocent lives from abortion. Both teens said they’ve felt strongly about the abortion issue ever since they were old enough to understand it. Moll, 18, said he can’t understand why anyone believes they have the right to kill babies.
"I can’t bring myself around to the other side of the argument," said Moll, who has been an annual Public Policy Day participant since 2008. "It’s my third time around (attending Public Policy Day) and I pretty much had a basic understanding of how it operates, and I had a good idea of what I was getting into."
Doran, on the other hand, didn’t quite know what to expect, but signed up for the trip at the urging of Moll, his friend and fellow senior at Williamson High School. Doran said he was glad to be part of such a strong Catholic presence in the capital and was excited to find hundreds of other young Catholics who’d also made the trip.
"It’s refreshing to see so many people who care about the same things I do," said Doran, 18. "It’s nice to actually go where the laws are made and to see that we have some input. These words have some weight to them."
Moll and Doran will graduate from high school this June, but they hope other teens will step up to fill their shoes. Talking to legislators isn’t nearly as intimidating as it sounds, Moll said.
"It’s just a great experience. You rarely get the opportunity to travel to the capital and actually sit down with the legislators, or any public officials for that matter. It’s a rare opportunity, and if you have it you should definitely take advantage of it," he said.
Contains reporting by Amy Kotlarz, Mike Latona and Jennifer Burke.