Political Horizons: Anti-trafficking push could stress image over substance

While everyone waited for Gov. Bobby Jindal to enter the room to announce his biggest legislative initiative of the year, Col. Mike Edmonson, head of the Louisiana State Police, tinkered with the look.

Edmonson, who made his bones as a spokesman, knows something about the elements of press photographs. He guided a victim of human trafficking from the fringes of the multitude to right up there next to the LSU coeds from the Tigers Against Trafficking advocacy group who would stand in the background when Jindal talked about the need to attack the evils threatening Louisiana’s children.

Human trafficking is the only issue of this legislative session that Jindal has given more than just perfunctory notice.

Republican state Rep. Brett Geymann, of Lake Charles, and one of the leaders of the most conservative krewe in the Louisiana House, says he’s disappointed at Jindal’s silence on Common Core. The issue of whether — and if so, how — public school students will have to meet higher academic standards is the subject most likely to define the 2014 general session of the Louisiana Legislature. The rhetoric is vicious, and compromise seems unlikely.

Geymann, who introduced legislation that would give parents control to set the standards locally, says he has heard nothing from the administration. “I’d like to know where they are on this,” he said.

State Rep. Ted James, D-Baton Rouge, and sponsor of a big bill that would limit fees charged by pay-day lenders, noted that, usually, Jindal’s staff already would have let legislators know whether their efforts would have the governor’s support. Not so this time.

Unlike in most states where legislatures assert their coequal status, Louisiana’s legislature historically has been subservient to the executive. A governor’s thoughts on a policy initiative go a long way toward determining whether the issue will be debated seriously or as a sideshow.

“It’s a good thing,” James said about Jindal’s detachment. “It gives legislators an opportunity to frame the discussion, and that’s the way it should be.”

For a governor who deploys legions of staffers to bully legislators into accepting partisan policy solutions, such as using taxpayer dollars to pay for private school tuitions, human trafficking is an easy get.

Conservative Protestants have made efforts to stop human trafficking one of their paramount causes. But the issue transcends political divides, making allies of people who usually snipe at one another. The United Nations established a program to fight human trafficking almost a decade ago. President Barack Obama focused federal efforts in September 2012.

The key sponsor of House Bill 1025, is state Rep. Neil Abramson, an Ivy League-educated Democrat who grew up in Baton Rouge and now represents Uptown New Orleans.

House Bill 1025 , which tightens existing law and toughens penalties, and House Bill 569, which would emphasize training for judges on the issue, are the only legislation in the “governor’s package” that was introduced at an event including law enforcement, advocates, a phalanx of legislators and an actual victim.

In 2008, Jindal’s transformative ethics law was introduced to similar fanfare.

Legislators rushed to pass a “gold standard” that made Louisiana look good to the eyes of the nation. As far-reaching as the financial disclosure part of the law goes, the new protocols and a lack of adequate funding virtually emasculated the enforcement.

Similarly, this human trafficking rewrite will make Louisiana one of the least hospitable places for predators to act but will rely on customer fines to pay for already underfunded treatment for the minors, whom supporters say they want to protect from trafficking.

Currently, human trafficking victims under the age of 18 fall under the state programs as children deemed as “in need of care” because their usually drug-addled caretakers don’t keep up their parenting duties. Minors who were trafficked usually bump into the system at the time of their arrest, typically for prostitution. These children are victims who, to use Jindal’s description, were virtual slaves to criminals. Their needs — and the treatments required — are far more intense.

If the ethics revamp is any indicator, Jindal and the Legislature won’t delve much deeper. The bills unquestionably will be a sweeping win. It’ll look good, like a Carnival float, but it’ll have little of the discipline and commitment of the Lenten season that is supposed to follow.

Mark Ballard is editor of The Advocate Capitol news bureau. His email address is mballard@theadvocate.com