November 8, 2013

Bill Nemitz: Democrats fumble ball on human trafficking

By Bill Nemitz bnemitz@pressherald.com
Columnist

Let me put this as diplomatically as I can: Maine’s Democratic leaders ought to have their heads examined.

AIRING IT OUT

Tune in to NewsRadio 560 WGAN at 8:08 a.m. Friday to hear columnist Bill Nemitz talk about this column and other issues.

Only then might we discern how the Dems managed to take a quintessentially nonpartisan issue – human trafficking – and turn it into a textbook example of politics at its worst.

Let’s recap:

Last week, legislative leaders from both parties sat down to decide which proposed bills to accept for the upcoming legislative session and which to reject.

As usual, it was a rapid-fire opening round – only about 100 of 400 bills were granted the “emergency” status required for consideration during this winter’s short session. Sponsors of the unsuccessful bills will get a chance to appeal to the 10-member Legislative Council on Nov. 21.

High on that list will be “An Act to Protect Victims of Human Trafficking.” Its sponsor, Rep. Amy Volk, R-Scarborough, says it’s aimed at vacating convictions for prostitution if it can be proven that the person convicted was a victim of human trafficking and thus was forced to break the law.

A pressing issue worthy of the Legislature’s time and toil?

Volk sure thinks so, citing a recent report by the Polaris Project that puts Maine in the lower tier of states when it comes to combating sex trafficking and helping its victims escape with their futures at least partly intact.

In an interview Thursday, Volk recalled reading about the Polaris Project report this summer, right around the time the Preble Street social services agency accepted a $400,000 federal grant to combat sex trafficking in and around Portland. The time, she concluded, was ripe for legislative intervention aimed at preventing victims of sex trafficking from being re-victimized by the criminal justice system.

“I thought, ‘Well, I’m going to put in a (bill) title just in case no on else does it,” said Volk. “I fully expected somebody else who read (about the Polaris Project report) had acted on it quicker than I did.”

But alas, Volk was the only one to submit such legislation. And while she didn’t lobby the Legislative Council to let it go forward – “I really didn’t think I needed to. I sort of felt it was a good, bipartisan bill on a hot topic, an identified need” – she was surprised when the council voted 6-4 along party lines to spike the measure.

That, however, was only the beginning.

In a subsequent interview with the Maine Public Broadcasting Network, Maine Democratic Party Chairman Ben Grant dismissed Volk’s bill as the work of “a conservative legislator who is desperate to try to realign a gender gap that (her) party faces at the polls, and a representative who needs to kind of soften her hard edges.”

So much for the public policy debate. Them’s fighting words – and thus, however needlessly, the fight began.

Republicans, from state party Chairman Rick Bennett on down, protested from the high ground that Grant was out of line and owed Volk an apology.

Worse yet (at least for the Dems), they pointed out that one “emergency’ bill that made it through the Legislative Council’s gate was “An Act To Amend the Laws Regarding Special Food and Beverage Taste-testing Event Licenses,” sponsored by none other than Senate President Justin Alfond, D-Portland.

(Alfond, who went five-for-five in getting his bills into next session’s legislative hopper, said in an interview Thursday that the taste-testing bill is actually a business-friendly measure prompted by “a beer-tasting festival that went really bad” in Portland last summer.)

A harbinger of election-year battles to come? No doubt.

The pointless and counterproductive politicization of a serious social issue? That too.

Lost in all of this, of course, is the central question: Is human trafficking in fact a problem in Maine? And if so, how do we best go about dealing with it?

Enter Rep. Mark Dion, D-Portland, who co-chairs the Legislature’s Criminal Justice and Public Safety Committee and would have given Volk’s bill the green light last week if he’d had a vote.

“The bill should come forward so the committee has an opportunity to explore the evidence,” said Dion, whose years as Cumberland County’s sheriff taught him that forceful coercion can be a factor whenever and wherever sex trafficking occurs.

As for the political dust-up, Dion wisely noted, “I think one of the toughest jobs in legislating is looking at the presented ideas and not marrying them to the individual bringing it forward. We’re not voting on motive. We’re voting on the policy question that the representative is bringing to us.”

In other words, cue the mea culpas. Thursday morning, Democratic Chairman Grant issued a public apology to Volk for his “ill-conceived remarks” and for speaking out before he had a firm grasp of the issue.

Since the MPBN interview, Grant said, “I have looked into the matter further and now understand that the issue of human trafficking does occur in all 50 states, including Maine. ... I should have done my homework first.”

On the heels of that came a flurry of prepared statements from the Democratic legislative leaders, all backpedaling hard enough to qualify for the World Unicycle Championship.

“We’ve heard quite a bit about the merits of this proposal since the Legislative Council’s initial meeting on second-session bills,” noted House Speaker Mark Eves, D-North Berwick. “We welcome the input and we’re looking forward to hearing from Rep. Volk in person when we hear appeals this month.”

Echoed Senate President Alfond: “I certainly support the merits of this bill to help victims rebuild their lives. Since our initial vote, Rep. Volk has made a very strong case for the sense of urgency and need for this bill. ... The Legislature has a process for approving, denying and appealing bills, and Rep. Volk is doing exactly what she should be doing by making the best case she can.”

Translation: A bill viewed with partisan suspicion only days ago is now well on its way to becoming one of the highest-profile pieces of legislation in the upcoming session.

Whether that’s warranted – Maine’s Uniform Crime reports show prostitution arrests statewide rising from 26 in 2011 to 56 last year – will be fodder for the committee hearing. A hearing that Rep. Volk, not to mention the people for whom she’s advocating, deserved all along.

Noted Volk, “If they had just approved it, we wouldn’t be talking about it right now.”

Nor would the Democrats have politics on their face.

Bill Nemitz can be contacted at 791-6323 or at:

bnemitz@pressherald.com

Twitter: @billnemitz

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