Brian T. Olszewski, The Catholic Virginian

While filing of legislation for the new term of the Virginia legislature could number 2,000-3,000 pieces, Jeff Caruso, executive director of the Virginia Catholic Conference, places them in context for the VCC — the “highest priority issues”:

•  Conform to federal abortion funding restrictions

• Reduce use of death penalty

• Ensure health care for all

• Help low-income families

• Recognize the dignity of immigrants

• Defend religious liberty

“There are particular pieces of legislation that we anticipate spending the most time on,” Caruso said during a Dec. 15 interview, noting that as legislation is filed, priorities could change. “This is the context for all the different things we’ll be working on.”

The VCC’s legislative agenda will be posted at www.vacatholic.org before the General Assembly convenes on Wednesday, Jan. 10.

The VCC staff and a policy committee vet issues and recommend them to a board headed by the state’s two Catholic bishops, and which is composed of members appointed by the bishops.

“They determine the issues we’re going to take formal stances on – to support or oppose,” Caruso said. “Every issue we work on is one that has approval from the bishops and the board before we proceed.”

One of the things with which the VCC will be dealing in the upcoming session is the composition of the House of Delegates. Prior to the November election, it was 66-34 in favor of the Republicans; as The Catholic Virginian went to press, its composition wasn’t finalized due to recounts, but it was expected to be evenly divided or a margin of two members for one party or the other.

“Our issues cut across the political spectrum. Pretty much whatever the issue has been, it’s been subject to a close vote, one way or another in Senate, but not so much in the House,” Caruso said. “Now we’re going to be dealing with close vote in the House and Senate.” The Senate’s membership is 21-19 in favor of the Republicans.

Two issues Caruso hopes receive bipartisan support are help for low-income families via the Earned Income Tax Credit, and expansion of the scholarship tax credit program to include Pre-K students.

“This (the Earned Income Tax Credit) is one of the bills Kevin (Gilbert Mauer, an associate VCC director) has been working on, which across the country has gotten a lot of support from both parties. We hope that is going to be the case here,” he said.

Caruso added “there seems to be a lot of interest among both parties in providing better opportunities for low income pre-kindergarten students and their families.”

Mauer encouraged Catholics to be involved in the work of the VCC.

“We urge Catholic constituents to lend their voice to their legislators to let them know how they feel about the issues,” he said. “That’s why we send out the alerts encouraging them to come to Catholics in the Capital.”

Catholics in the Capital is a way for Catholics, individually or as a group, to meet with their representatives. The VCC will work with those who wish to participate.

Bill Re, a VCC associate director, said constituents have a better opportunity of being heard on the state level than on the national level.

“If they (legislators) get five emails from constituents (about an issue) and we go to meet with them about that issue, they know about those emails,” he said. “Especially on the state level, one voice is really something that the legislators take notice of.”

He said that with the potential for close votes on life issues and religious liberty, constituent contact with legislators is vital.

“It’s more important now than ever for people to be involved and respond to our alerts,” Re said in urging Catholics to sign up for VCC action alerts and to become part of its email network.

Caruso said Catholics need to understand the impact of the decisions elected officials make.

“They should recognize that these decisions being made by government leaders at federal, state or local levels in some cases involve whether people are going to live or die or whether their very basic needs are met or unmet,” he said. “It is very important for us to participate in all those decisions that truly affect human lives and human dignity, and it’s part and parcel of what it means to love our neighbor as ourselves.”

Editor’s note: Registration for emails and action alerts are available at www.vacatholic.org. To contact the VCC office, call (804)-225-8565.