On Feb. 11, the Minnesota house and senate will convene for the 2020 legislative session to propose, debate, and (maybe) enact policy. And as the gears of governance are set into motion, Jewish organizations will be working, as always, to represent the community’s interests across a variety of issues.
But what are those issues? Who are these organizations? What should you expect from this legislative session? And how can you get involved?
In the spirit of keeping Minnesotan Jews informed, TC Jewfolk spoke to the Minnesota chapter of the National Council of Jewish Women (NCJW), Jewish Community Action (JCA), and the Jewish Community Relations Council of Minnesota and the Dakotas (JCRC) to answer those questions and write up this guide to the 2020 legislative session.
Find out who represents you: https://www.gis.leg.mn/iMaps/districts/
The Minnesota legislative cycle is built around an alternating agenda. Odd-numbered years (say, 2019) are focused on creating a state budget. And even-numbered years (like this year, 2020) are focused on general policy.
But the irony is that this policy year might not see a lot of, well, policy. “To be perfectly honest, we’re not super optimistic that we’re going to see much happen,” said Beth Gendler, executive director of NCJW.
At the moment, Minnesota is the only state in the country that has a split legislature: Democrats control the house, and Republicans control the senate. That doesn’t make for effective governance. As the New York Times put it in early 2019, Minnesota “has become the lone state laboratory for testing whether bipartisanship – which has failed spectacularly on the federal level – can work in this moment.”
Still, there is some optimism in the Jewish community for being able to navigate the political gridlock. “We’ve done it in the past,” said Ethan Roberts, the JCRC’s director of government affairs. (Roberts is on the board of Jewfolk, Inc., TC Jewfolk’s parent organization.) Last year, the JCRC helped get both the house and senate to approve increased security-related funding for religious institutions.
“And it wasn’t begrudgingly. It was a top priority for both chambers, both parties,” Roberts said. “So it is possible. But it’s going to require patience and flexibility.”
But there are extra pressures this year. The legislative session is short, starting in early January in odd-numbered years and early February in even-numbered years, and mandated to end on the Monday after the third Saturday of May by the Minnesota state constitution. (To translate that to normal dates, this year’s session runs from Feb. 11 to May 18.)
And 2020 is an election year, both for the state legislature and for the country. So tensions are running particularly high in the places where Democrats and Republicans meet.
Overall, Gendler said, “the goals are keeping issues in front of our lawmakers, making sure that they know: You’re going to hear from us, and we still care about this, and we’re going to keep these issues in front of you.”
Generally speaking, the Jewish agenda (nobody say it this way to the anti-Semites) for this legislative session is represented by three organizations. Here’s the brief rundown:
- The Minnesota chapter of the National Council of Jewish Women: The NCJW has existed since 1893, with the Minnesota chapter formed soon afterward. It was created to advocate for Jewish women across a variety of issues that affect them. Over the years, the NCJW has been involved in immigration policy, women’s political and health rights, and women’s safety issues. The NCJW is a grassroots advocacy organization.
- Jewish Community Action: Founded in 1995, JCA is also a grassroots advocacy organization native to Minnesota. It focuses on the racial, economic, and social justice issues that plague the state, from police brutality and housing inequality to immigration reform and advocating for marginalized communities. JCA is the progressive Jewish corner of the community.
- Jewish Community Relations Council of Minnesota and the Dakotas: The JCRC grew out of the rampant anti-Semitism found in Minnesota in the 1930s, 40s, and 50s to serve as the Jewish community’s central voice to local officials and the public at large. The JCRC is less grassroots and more institutional, with full-time lobbyists making sure that the interests of the community are represented in local policy.
Legislative Agenda 2020 Breakdown
Below is the rough breakdown on what the three organizations will be advocating for this legislative session in terms of broad issues, specific bills to look out for, and relevant lobbying days.
These descriptions should be taken with a grain of salt. Expectations before a legislative session and the actual session itself can end up being very different, and new issues or bills may come up and unexpectedly become a main priority. For more information on each agenda, check out the websites for NCJW, JCA, and the JCRC.
NCJW is advocating:
- to protect access to abortion clinics and let physicians ignore state-developed abortion counseling material, which often includes inaccurate or misleading information.
- to make Minnesota high schools offer menstrual products to students for free.
- for bills that would mandate universal background checks for anyone buying guns (even at gun shows or through private sales), and an Extreme Risk Protection Order (commonly called a “red flag law”) that would allow the state to take away someone’s guns if family members or police make the case that they’re a danger to themselves or others.
- for hate crime legislation (see JCA’s agenda).
NCJW is partnering with Reviving the Islamic Sisterhood for Empowerment to host Muslim and Jewish Women’s Day on Feb. 18, where the two organizations will lobby for these issues together. NCJW is also participating in Reproductive Freedom Lobbying Day with a coalition of organizations on Feb. 19.
JCA is advocating:
- for hate crime legislation that will mandate training for law enforcement on identifying and dealing with hate crimes, and open the door to the state working with community organizations to monitor and report hate crimes. JCA is leading a coalition effort to introduce and pass this legislation with Rep. Frank Hornstein in the house and Sen. Ron Latz in the senate.
- to restore voting rights to people who are denied the right to vote due to a criminal conviction.
- for a ban on conversion therapy.
- to adjust the two-year statute of limitations on post-conviction relief, giving people eligible for deportation because of a criminal conviction the ability to petition the state to re-try their case.
JCRC is advocating:
- for JCA’s hate crime legislation.
- for more Holocaust and genocide studies in school social studies curricula. The JCRC is working on legislation and with the Department of Education on an administrative level.
- as a governing member of the Joint Religious Legislative Coalition (an interfaith lobbying coalition) for increased investment in affordable housing and homeless shelters, increased investment in child care assistance for families, and gun control laws.
- for changes in tax policy that will increase the incentives for charitable giving (most Jewish and religious organizations are non-profits).
How You Can Get Involved
Politics can seem confusing and difficult to engage with as a regular citizen. But the benefit of working on the state level is the ease of access to decision-makers.
“It’s not nothing to make a phone call or send an email or set a time to talk to your representative or senator,” Roberts said. “It doesn’t take a lot of contact with constituents to get the attention of a legislator. It’s not like Washington D.C.”
Despite the sense that this legislative session will be gridlocked, “it’s a right and an obligation to engage in the process,” said Gendler. And the conversations that happen during the 2020 session will carry over to November.
“Frankly, because this is such a big election year, the work that we do at the capital doesn’t just impact what is going to happen at the capital, it’s going to impact every town hall and every conversation that every legislator is having,” said Carin Mrotz, executive director of JCA.
“And honestly, speaking to them in a consistent and regular way about what you care about is actually how you move them or provide a reason why they shouldn’t be in their position anymore.”
If you have questions about best times or ways to engage with your legislators, be it with phone or email scripts or learning about an issue to help advocate for it, reach out to NCJW, JCA, and the JCRC.