Political Courage Sought to Maintain Anti-Human Trafficking Funding (AUDIO INCLUDED)

Efforts to combat human trafficking have taken a more visible role in public policy discussions over the passed few years. U.S. Senator Heidi Heitkamp has been a strong leader in this anti-trafficking effort, holding numerous roundtables across the state and sponsoring federal legislation to combat this horrendous industry. However, federal efforts alone will not stomp out this problem. The state must partner with those federal efforts to provide resources against sexual exploitation. That partnership may be in jeopardy if the North Dakota House holds its ground on funding.

Last week we interviewed Christina Sambor of F.U.S.E on It Takes 2 on KFGO (Audio Above). Sambor explains the proposed reductions in funding being discussed in the Legislature when it comes to fighting human trafficking. SB 2203 originally introduced at $1 million, the Senate cut the proposal to $500,000 on February 15th. The House went a step further and cut it to $250,000 on March 31st. Worse yet, Sambor stated these reductions might jeopardize the federal funding which requires a specific percentage of local matching dollars. It is tough to say exactly at this point.

Rep. Jeff Delzer

These programs are relatively new in North Dakota. In fact, the infrastructure now in jeopardy came together as a result of tough leadership in the 2015 legislature. Not unlike what the programs face now, the House Appropriations Committee threatened drastic reductions in the proposed 2015 funding. Rep. Jeff Delzer, Chair of the Appropriations Committee, threatened to take the $1 million appropriation and slash it. He even went as far as wanting to demand a private sector match to access state funds. That is when leadership so desperately needed in the majority party of the House appeared. The charge was led by former Rep. Robert (Bob) Skarphol of Tioga.

Rep. Skarphol had a metaphorical stare down with Rep. Delzer over state funding to be used as leverage to receive the federal grants. Skarphol realized the severity of the situation and the need to lead without strings attached that may delay the program’s implementation as Delzer, likely inadvertently, was asking for. At the end of the day, not only did Skarphol win the debate, he successfully got the House to go along with an appropriation of $1.25 million, $250,000 more than was originally proposed. The Senate agreed to the funding increase.

Rep. Bob Skarphol

Where are the “Bob Skarphols” in the 65th Legislative session to stand up to people like Rep. Jeff Delzer and Rep. Al Carlson when it comes to budgetary decisions? If they exist in this political climate, it is long past time they stand up and say dammit this is important and that we cannot go backward. Silence and backroom, off record, chatter of wanting to do better are no longer an option. Where is the political courage in the majority party to find innovative ways to fund these sort of efforts? I doubt there is a single legislator who thinks these efforts are unworthy. There are options to accomplish what should be done.

Why do I single out the majority party? First, they “own” the legislature and whatever decisions come out of this session. Secondly, because in the highly partisan nature of the legislative leadership in Bismarck, a proposal offered by a Democrat to accomplish this would be scoffed at. I have no doubt if one of them were to offer what is necessary the minority party would be eager to join them in pushing it across the finish line.

I also understand the Attorney General has been active in attempting to usher this funding through the Legislature. If true, he hasn’t been very successful in persuading legislators on the funding’s importance. At least not yet. As noted above, each chamber has reduced the appropriation. I question why this wasn’t prioritized and placed as an item in the Attorney General’s budget when they were constructing it. I know the Attorney General believes in these programs and sees their success. Let’s hope as we inch closer to the end of session his efforts prevail.

This problem isn’t going away. In March of 2017 alone, two stories captured our attention. At the beginning of the month, nine people were arrested in a sex sting in the Red River Valley. One of those individuals was a prominent business person in Fargo. At the end of the month, a prostitution ring was broken up that stretched from Minneapolis through Fargo-Moorhead and into the North Dakota oil patch. That sort of sophistication deserves an equally sophisticated response.

Policy without the resources to enforce diminishes its impact. This is a matter of security for very vulnerable individuals. There is still time in this session to do what is necessary. Who will have the political courage and step up?

Tyler Axness