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Bishops take poverty tour; call for "moral" state budget
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Lutheran Bishop Peter Rogness chats with a student in St. Matthew's Child Care Center on St. Paul's West Side. (MPR Photo/Toni Randolph)
The budget season is underway at the state Capitol. And as lawmakers try to close a $700 million deficit, the leaders of the state's two largest religious denominations are urging a different approach to funding human services.

St. Paul, Minn. — Much of the recent talk about human services has been about cost. But Catholic Archbishop Harry Flynn and Lutheran Bishop Peter Rogness say the talk is starting in the wrong place. They want lawmakers to see the human side of human services, rather than just the money.

"You don't start with the question of money, you start with the moral judgment about what kind of people we're going to be together," said Bishop Rogness.

In order to make their point, Rogness and Flynn tried to put a human face on poverty in Minnesota by touring several human services programs based in the Church of St. Matthew on St. Paul's West Side.

They visited a non-profit developer of affordable housing, a health clinic and food kitchen, as well as the only licensed day care center on the West Side of St. Paul.

At St. Matthew's Child Care Center, Flynn chatted with a few of the 3-to-5-year-olds, before teacher Christine Joa told the story of a mother who had to pull her 3-year-old out of school because of a tuition increase.

You don't start with the question of money, you start with the moral judgment about what kind of people we're going to be together.
- Lutheran Bishop Peter Rogness

"Her payment went up $250 per month, and at the same time her rent went up," Joa said. "This was no longer an option for her."

Joa says most of the families at St. Matthew's Day Care receive a subsidy, but for this family, even that wasn't enough. The child now spends two days with a neighbor and two days with a grandparent. The father has changed his hours at work so he can have Fridays off. But Joa says the boy no longer gets the speech classes and occupational therapy he used to get at St. Matthew's.

"The child's not getting the services they need any longer. Parents' hands are tied. They have no avenues. They come to us literally in tears. And we don't have answers for them," said Joa.

But Flynn says he wants that to change, despite the state's $700 million dollar budget deficit. In the next few days, Gov. Pawlenty will present his proposal for closing the gap, but he's said he won't raise taxes.

Flynn says a tax increase is an option that should remain on the table, and that lawmakers should not just take out the budget ax when the considering the spending plan.

"I want our legislators to go into this session and not ask so much, 'What can we cut?' But, 'What are the needs of our society, and how are we going to meet those needs in a most humane-based way?'" said Flynn.

Catholic Archbishop Flynn and Bishop Rogness, head of the St. Paul Area Synod of the ELCA, together represent about two million Minnesota churchgoers. Both men point to the state's tradition of generosity, and Rogness says that it should continue -- even in these tough financial times.

"We think that by looking closely at the human needs of the people in this community, we can reshape our public discussion away from hand-wringing over not having enough -- and towards instead, a vision of being the kind of people we have been and can be," said Rogness.

A spokeswoman says the Lutheran church is encouraging parishioners to write to their lawmakers to "bring compassion" to the state's budget process.