By Tom Chapman
In his 17th Condition of the State message to members of the Iowa General Assembly last week, Gov. Terry Branstad proposed a $6.2 billion budget for FY 2013, which is about a $230 million increase over last year. Most of the increases are in health care and education.
He announced a four-point jobs plan, which would reduce commercial and industrial property taxes by 40 percent over eight years. The plan would also cut taxes for smaller Iowa companies that provide materials for big companies like John Deere.
The governor also discussed his new education plan. He said education “must be a greater priority,” and that the goal would be to “turn good schools into world-class schools.” The plan is budgeted for $25 million, and includes:
• Retention of third-graders who do not meet basic literacy requirements
• Making seniority a minor factor in deciding which teachers are laid off
• Giving all preschool students a kindergarten readiness assessment
• Requiring high school students to take end-of-course exams before they graduate
• Eliminating requirements around “seat time” for academic credit
• Increasing availability of online classes
• An innovation acceleration fund
The governor’s 156-page education reform bill was released in the House and Senate last week. The bills are House Study Bill 517 and Senate Study Bill 3009. The Iowa Catholic Conference (ICC) and its education committee will evaluate how the bill might affect Catholic schools and expand educational opportunities for parents and students.
Another bill of interest, House File 2033, would require that a woman be offered the opportunity to view an ultrasound of her baby before an abortion is performed. The ICC sees this as a good bill.
Ministerial exception ruling
The U.S. Supreme Court voted unanimously last week to uphold a church’s right to determine who its ministers are and banned government interference in the process. This may have implications for being able to choose teachers in Catholic schools, in that a role in conveying the Church’s message and carrying out its mission are relevant to the “ministerial exception.” You can read the decision at www.supremecourt.gov/opinions/11pdf/10-553.pdf.
Marriage and religious freedom
Leaders of some of the largest religious communities in the United States have joined together in an open letter to Americans to voice their shared concern for marriage and religious freedom. The letter, titled “Marriage and Religious Freedom: Fundamental Goods That Stand or Fall Together,” was released Jan. 12. It can be found at www. usccb.org/issues-and-action/marriage-and-family/marriage/promotion-and-defense-of-marriage/ecumenical-and-interreligious-activities.cfm.
Signatories include leaders from Anglican, Baptist, Catholic, Evangelical, Jewish, Lutheran, Mormon and Pentecostal communities in the United States. Cardinal-designate Timothy Dolan, archbishop of New York and president of the U.S. Conference of Catholic Bishops, was one of the four signing Catholic bishops.
“Marriage and religious liberty are at a crisis point in the United States,” he said. “This letter is a sign of hope. Not only are tens of millions of believing citizens represented in the letter’s signatories, but the letter itself testifies to the growing and shared awareness of just how important marriage and religious freedom are to the well being of our country. The letter makes a compelling argument that needs to be heard by all of us, especially those in positions of authority: anyone truly concerned with religious freedom must also be a defender of marriage’s perennial definition.”
According to the National Catholic Rural Life Conference (NCRLC), the Farm Bill is an opportunity to shape the health, equity and long-term economic and environmental sustainability of the U.S. farm and food system. The National Sustainable Agriculture Coalition is launching its 2012 Farm Bill Campaign as Congress returns to session later this month.
In addition, Catholic Relief Services (CRS) will be advocating on the international aspects of the Farm Bill, particularly funds for Title II Food for Peace and McGovern-Dole Food for Education programs. CRS is also suggesting moving away from the practice of selling U.S.-grown food in foreign countries to pay for aid programs. It would be more efficient to directly fund the programs.
Rural ministry conference
Wartburg Theological Seminary will hold its 31st Annual Rural Ministry Conference March 4-6. This year’s focus is “Courage in a Caring Community.” The Rural Ministry Conference has become an ecumenical conference for those working in small town and rural parishes throughout the Midwest. James Ennis, executive director of the National Catholic Rural Life Conference, is one of the speakers. Participants can register online by following the links from www.ruralministry.com.
Poverty awareness month
Because compassion for those who are poor and vulnerable was a central part of Jesus’ mission, the U.S bishops’ Poverty USA Campaign seeks to broaden the general understanding of and concern for people living in poverty in America. The campaign strives to engage as many people as possible in a shared responsibility to care for those who are in need. Help shed light on the seriousness of poverty in America and find ways to do something about it by joining the Poverty Awareness Facebook Event.