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Casey Schoeneberger
Casey Schoeneberger, Faith in Public Life’s Press Secretary, came to FPL from NETWORK: A National Catholic Social Justice Lobby’s Associate Program after studying economics at Saint Joseph’s University. She blogs about tax and budget issues on Bold Faith Type.

Safety Net Under Attack: Paul Ryan and the House GOP Try Again

February 9, 2012, 8:00 am | By Casey Schoeneberger

Lost amongst the GOP presidential primary and caucus races this week, Republicans in the House of Representatives quietly began proposing legislation intended to  implement Rep. Paul Ryan’s (R-WI) radical budget reforms.

Despite offering these budget proposals in a new calendar year, the Center on Budget and Policy Priorities points out that the legislation simply revives last year’s attempt by Rep. Ryan’s to fundamentally alter the role of government:

The House may soon consider two bills (H.R. 3576 and H.R. 3580) that would limit federal spending to levels similar to those in the House-passed budget resolution, authored by Budget Committee Chairman Paul Ryan (R-WI)…These two bills would require large cuts in federal spending that would likely fall disproportionately on low-income people. They would exacerbate economic downturns by preventing the federal government’s “automatic stabilizers” — programs like unemployment insurance and food stamps — from expanding as they are designed to do to help support a weak economy. They would effectively require that all deficit reduction come from program cuts and none from revenues, thereby precluding balanced deficit-reduction packages.

In addition to undermining safety-nets like food stamps and unemployment insurance, Ryan’s new Medicare Plan (and bipartisanship work with Democratic Senator Ron Wyden (D-OR) ) still fails to adequately protect senior citizens and radically shifts rising healthcare costs into the hands of low-income seniors. Brian Beutler at Talking Points Memo explains these radical changes:

The Ryan plan would cut Medicare in two major ways. It would gradually raise the age at which people become eligible for Medicare from 65 to 67, even as it repeals the health reform law’s coverage expansions. This means that 65- and 66-year-olds would have neither Medicare nor access to health insurance exchanges in which they could buy coverage at an affordable price and receive subsidies to help them purchase coverage if their incomes are low. It would also replace Medicare’s guaranteed benefit with a premium support contribution, or voucher, that would grow only by the general inflation rate — much more slowly than health care costs have grown in recent decades.

There’s no doubt that in time, Paul Ryan’s “new” budget proposals will be exposed as yet another attempt to eliminate the social and economic safety net. Just as Rep. Ryan and Republicans were stopped from implementing these radical reforms last year, people of faith and advocacy experts will expose Ryan’s budget reforms for the true threat they are to America’s vulnerable people.

Photo Credit: Gage Skidmore/Flickr

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GOP Tries to Divert Defense Cuts; Faith Leaders Provide Alternative Vision

February 3, 2012, 12:38 pm | By Casey Schoeneberger

In early January, President Obama announced plans to decrease the military budget by $487 billion dollars over the next ten years. Although faith groups, such as the Friends Committee on National Legislation, continue to pressure the Pentagon for further cuts, the announcement is a welcome start to preventing military conflicts around the world. FCNL has lobbied policymakers and educated the public for decades about the fact that a  ballooning military budget diverts critical funding from domestic priorities like schools, housing assistance, safety-net programs and future infrastructure investments.

In addition to the President’s proposal to trim the defense budget, automatic military spending cuts triggered by the failure of the Supercommittee’s deficit negotiation are on the way. But now, Congressional Republicans are introducing legislation to subvert that agreement, trying to shift the automatic cuts onto federal workers instead.

In spite of Congress’s irresponsible military spending and decision to backtrack on their 2011 agreement, young people across America have a different vision for their future.  Just this month, the American Friends Service Committee and the National Priorities project released their  2nd Annual “If I had a Trillion Dollars” video contest.  The trillion dollar question represents the yearly cost of the U.S military, and alternatively, the cost of tax cuts for the wealthiest Americans.

Respondents and future documentary filmmakers were asked to consider “What would [they] do with $1 trillion- for yourself, your family and community?”

To see last year’s winning entry and the budget priorities of young people across the country, check out this video:

Policymakers should heed the advice of these young filmmakers, re-evaluate their budget priorities and recommit to investing in the needs of the generations to come.

Note: Post updated to reflect FCNL’s continuing efforts to pressure the Pentagon and Congress to implement further military spending cuts.

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Faith Leaders Advocate Against Private Prison Profiteering

February 1, 2012, 4:06 pm | By Casey Schoeneberger

With states utilizing an increasing number of private prison contracts to purportedly ease budget shortfalls, the prison privatization debate has fallen squarely on Florida’s shoulders this week. Despite last year’s failed privatization efforts, the Florida legislature is once again considering awarding contracts to for-profit corporations that would put  29 facilities and up to 16,000 inmates in the hands of private corporations.

As the Florida Senate debates the proposed legislation, faith, labor and human rights groups have succeeded in delaying the fast-tracked legislation. From the Florida Independent:

Since the bills were introduced, corrections officers, labor groups and public policy experts have expressed opposition to the state’s plans. They warned legislators that prison privatization would threaten public safety and put corrections employees out of work. Many who testified warned that private prison companies use inferior training and policies for their employees, and cut corners to save money.

Despite claims by private prison supporters that privatization plans save money, the benefits often fail to materialize for the state. Chris Kirkham at The Huffington Post explains:

Proponents have advanced the move as a cost-saving measure, a business-minded response to the state’s budget shortfall. But a series of studies and the experiences of several other states that have experimented with privatizing prison systems raise significant doubts about the cost savings that are supposed to accrue: Private prisons have tended to take control of the lowest-cost inmates, those lacking health problems and posing less risk of violence, while leaving states to contend with the harder cases.

While private prison corporations continue to benefit from America’s high incarceration rates and state budget shortfalls, people of faith are taking steps to ensure their congregation’s investments do not fund this growing, immoral industry.

Bill Mefford, Director of Civil and Human Rights for the General Board of Church and Society of the United Methodist Church describes his denomination’s motivation for divesting their money out of private prisons this year:

While United Methodists have been caring for those imprisoned and fighting to lessen the number of people incarcerated, our church has been profiting from corporations making billions of dollars from the incarceration of people of color. It was a sickening realization. Profiting from stock in CCA and GEO Group is a betrayal of all that we stand for and believe in as United Methodists and followers of Jesus.

As Florida activists and the United Methodist Church has demonstrated, faith-based organizations combining forces with labor and human rights advocates is a key way for state groups to effectively insert a vital moral voice into this ongoing, contentious debate.

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Progress on Death Penalty Justice

January 26, 2012, 3:35 pm | By Casey Schoeneberger

Last September, despite recanted eyewitness testimony and last-minute clemency appeals to the Georgia state Pardons and Paroles Board, Troy Davis was executed, sparking  international outcry. It has been four months since that egregious sentence was carried out, but Davis’ killing created a new wave of  anti-death penalty activism and is leading more and more people of faith to demand an end to state-sanctioned executions.

In a sign that state legislatures are finally taking notice, the Pennsylvania Senate recently “passed a resolution calling for a review of the fairness, equality and expenses of having a death penalty that is rarely used.” Although executions are rare in Pennsylvania, 208 inmates remain on death row.

In the typically conservative state of Montana, faith leaders are actively engaged in efforts to save Canadian-born Ronald Smith from death by lethal injection. Smith, convicted of the 1982 murders of two Blackfoot Indian men, is the only Canadian on death row in the U.S.. Eighty religious leaders gathered at a press conference last week to call both for clemency for Smith and the abolishment of Montana’s death penalty – a measure that has already passed the State House of Representatives.

From Episcopal Café:

I have seen no research that indicates that (the death penalty) acts as a deterrent to violent crime,” Rev. Franklin Brookhart, Bishop of Montana for the Anglican-affiliated Episcopal Church, argued in a letter to state legislators. “I cannot see how it makes us a better nation, that is, a more compassionate and fair society. And it clearly does not set a good example for individual conduct or moral maturity.

Just this week, the Supreme Court ruled in the case of death row inmate Cory Maples, who is awaiting execution in Alabama. Reflecting one of the most shocking examples of inadequate representation, Maples missed the opportunity to file an appeal due to mishandled mail and lawyers who failed to inform the court that they would no longer be managing his case.

In a rare display of empathy by the high court (Justice Alito called it “a veritable perfect storm of misfortune”), the Justices ruled 7-2 that Cory Maples deserved another hearing. Unfortunately, Justices Scalia and Thomas refused to join the broad majority.

Scalia, who has been called out by Catholic theologians for his misrepresentation of Catholic theology on this issue, said in his dissent that while the majority of justices may have ruled out of an “understandable sense of frustration,” the ruling would set a precedent to other death row inmates to challenge their sentence because of ineffective counsel. Instead of acknowledging the errors of the legal system, Scalia was more than ready put a man to death based on the errors of his inept legal counsel.

Andrew Cohen at the Atlantic explains Scalia’s dissent:

Justice Scalia wants certainty and finality on appeal — even if it means injustice to a capital defendant. Even Justice Alito’s litany of errors — eight of them! — wasn’t enough to convince Justice Scalia that Maples deserved more from his attorneys, the justice system, the High Court and the Constitution… This week we see how far lawyers must go in abandoning their capital clients before Justice Scalia will take notice and do something about it.

Despite Scalia’ (and Thomas’s) disappointing dissent, people of faith across the United States continue the march forward to bring an end to the death penalty and these blatant miscarriages of justice.

H/T Death Penalty Information Center

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Payday Lenders Try to Intimidate Churches with Threatening Letters

January 25, 2012, 12:19 pm | By Casey Schoeneberger

Last week we covered the release of “Profiting from Poverty”, an extensive report detailing the unscrupulous tactics payday lending companies use to make astronomical profits (on the backs of the poor). Now it has come to light that in at least one state, payday lending companies are threatening churches that are educating their communities on the dangers of payday loans.

In Missouri, the faith community is working to gather 90,000 petition signatures to get an initiative on the ballot that which would cap payday loan interest rates at 36 percent. (Current law allows payday loan rates to be as high at 1,950 percent).

The law firm that sent the letters on behalf of payday lending companies argues that they were simply meant to serve as an “educational tool”.

Barb Shelly at the Kansas City Star describes the letters’ contents and the accuracy of threats against these claiming congregations:

The letter from the Texas law firm, Anthony & Middlebrook, advised churches in bold letters that “strict statutes carrying criminal penalties apply to the collection of signatures for an initiative petition.

That’s true, of course, if one distributes a false affidavit or signs someone else’s name to a petition. No one has accused the payday loan opponents of doing any of those things.

The letter also warns churches that their tax-exempt status could be threatened if they engage in lobbying or attempts to influence legislation. The letter interprets “influencing legislation” to include “supporting or encouraging action with respect to the (payday lending) petition.”

That is intimidation, pure and simple. Federal tax law does prohibit churches and charities from supporting or opposing candidates. It also says that those groups must limit advocacy activities on behalf of a particular cause so that they don’t constitute “a substantial part” of an organization’s total activities.

But nothing in any law prohibits churches from speaking out on important issues, and individual church members are free to participate in political and issue campaigns as much as they wish.

Thankfully, the threatening letters aren’t causing congregations to back down. Even more educational events, forums, and petition gatherings are planned for the upcoming week. The payday lenders immoral, dishonest attacks suggest that the faith community’s efforts are making a difference.


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