AUGUSTA, Maine — Of the hundreds of bills rejected last week by legislative leaders, one has become a political flashpoint for Republicans and their supporters. The surprise is it’s not a bill for welfare reform or tax cuts, but a seemingly innocuous proposal to solve one problem faced by women who are victims of human trafficking.
The bill by Rep. Amy Volk, R-Scarborough, was one of roughly 300 rejected by the Legislative Council, a group composed of six Democratic leaders and four top GOP legislators, who decided which bills would be admitted to the second session of the 126th Legislature. Only about 100 bills made it through for consideration during the shorter second session, which is typically reserved for emergencies.
On Thursday, Maine Democratic Party Chairman Ben Grant apologized for an interview he gave on MPBN last week, in which he said Volk was attempting to “soften her edges” with the bill. He also said the Republicans were using the bill to score political points with women, and questioned whether human trafficking was a serious issue in Maine.
State GOP Chairman Rick Bennett said the comments were “patronizing and sexist,” and immediately called for Grant to apologize. On Thursday, Grant did just that, and said he had done more research and had a change of heart.
“I made several ill-conceived remarks last week about Rep. Volk’s proposed legislation,” Grant said in a statement issued by the party. “I apologize to Rep. Volk and to those working on this important issue.”
The back-and-forth between the party chiefs was just one example of the brouhaha that has simmered since Volk’s bill was denied. Since then, she and other GOP lawmakers and party activists have decried the decision on her bill more loudly than they’ve protested the rejection of others, including House Minority Leader Ken Fredette’s bills on welfare reform, a top Republican priority.
They’ve turned Volk ’ s bill, which would expunge prostitution convictions from the records of victims of human trafficking, into a political bomb. Some in the Republican Party have accused Democrats of “waging a war on women” — a charge often lobbed at the GOP — or of trying to deny a victory on women’s issues, usually the domain of the political left, to Volk, who is deeply conservative.
Democrats, meanwhile, have minimized the importance of the rejection, and have said they will welcome Volk’s appeal, along with those of any other lawmakers who saw their proposals rejected, when the Legislative Council reconvenes on Nov. 21.
A nationwide advocacy group, The Polaris Project, has endorsed the bill as a key step for the state in addressing growing instances of human trafficking. On Thursday, three conservative women’s groups — the Concerned Women for America of Maine, the Republican Federation of Women and the Informed Women’s Network — assembled in the State House Hall of Flags to urge Democrats on the council to reconsider the bill. They also thanked Grant for his apology.
Volk did not attend the news conference.
“The stigma of a prostitution conviction should not dog the victims of sex trafficking for the rest their lives, when they had little to no control over their actions,” said Penny Morrell, state director for the Concerned Women for America’s Maine chapter.
On the day Volk’s bill was rejected, House Speaker Mark Eves, D-North Berwick, said the bill was denied because the Legislative Council needed more information before accepting it. All six Democrats on the panel voted against letting Volk’s bill move forward; the four Republicans supported it.
Since the flurry of Republican criticism, Democrats have stressed that the initial vote on the more than 400 bills was just a first pass, and said they were happy to know Volk would argue the merits of her bill in the appeals process. Senate President Justin Alfond, D-Portland, said she had already made a “strong case.”
“I’m glad we’ll have the chance to hear from Rep. Volk on how her bill will address the atrocity of human trafficking,” said House Whip Jeff McCabe, D-Skowhegan, who serves on the Legislative Council. “Because of the constraints of the second session, legislators will have some tough decisions to make. But bills have a good shot in the second round if their sponsors can demonstrate both the merit and urgency of their proposals.”
Democrats also pointed out that many bills by their own party were rejected.
Follow Mario Moretto on Twitter at @riocarmine.