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Behind closed doors, Texas lawmakers strip funding for sex trafficking victims

Lawmakers cut a $3 million initiative to help victims of sex trafficking, ending child welfare advocates' hopes that 2017 would be the year they would finally see funds set aside to help children who had been sold for sex.

Pimps send their victims to "walk the track" on a stretch of Bissonnet Street in Houston. Anti-trafficking efforts in Texas have focused more on putting pimps in prison than rehabilitating their prey.

In recent private negotiations between the Texas House and Senate about which public programs to fund and how to fund them, state lawmakers opted to kill a $3 million initiative to rehabilitate victims of sex trafficking.

That ended hopes from child welfare advocates that 2017 would be the first year in recent memory in which state lawmakers might set aside funds specifically intended to help victims who were sold for sex. Though Texas leaders often boast of their efforts to end human trafficking, they have balked time and again at paying for victims' services, despite findings that many had previous contact with the state’s child welfare system.

The Texas Tribune examined the issue closely in a February series.

proposal led by state Rep. Gina Hinojosa, D-Austin, would have rerouted $3 million from the governor’s homeland security budget and directed it to the Texas Health and Human Services Commission to help trafficking victims receive “necessary services,” though it did not specify which ones. It passed the House, 113 to 32.

But that proposal did not survive budget negotiations between the House and Senate, whose spending priorities contained significant differences. Lawmakers on a conference committee met privately to reconcile those differences and prioritize which public programs to fund.

Hinojosa said she had not received an explanation from the conference committee about why the funding was stripped.

“Obviously, I’m disappointed,” she said in a brief interview on the House floor.

State Sen. Charles Schwertner, R-Georgetown, and state Rep. Sarah Davis, R-West University Place, led the committee’s negotiations over health and human services spending. Neither responded to a request for comment on the funding cuts.

If no such money materializes before the legislative session ends next week, it will continue state leaders’ long streak of passing laws meant to punish perpetrators of sex trafficking while offering only meager assistance to victims.

The 2009 legislative session offers a historical example. That year, lawmakers passed an anti-sex-trafficking law that called for the creation of a similar, $10 million-per-year victim assistance program, meant to offer grants to provide housing, counseling and medical care for trafficking survivors. But the Legislature never appropriated the money, and eight years later the program’s coffers remain empty.

This year’s proposal would have cut $1 million from Gov. Greg Abbott’s budget for homeland security in 2018 and another $2 million the following year. A spokesman for Abbott did not respond to a request for comment. During his 2014 campaign for governor, Abbott made the fight against sex trafficking — which he calls "modern day slavery" — one of his platform’s top 10 issues.

State budget writers did offer a funding boost to the state’s beleaguered child welfare system. The final budget that emerged from the conference committee would spend more than $500 million on the child welfare system compared to the previous state budget, state Sen. Jane Nelson, the upper chamber’s budget chief, said in a prepared statement. It also directs the Texas Department of Family and Protective Services to study how it can better provide services to trafficking victims who are in the state's care.

Lawmakers are expected to vote on the $217 billion document Saturday.

"This is a responsible budget that keeps Texas moving in the right direction,” Nelson, a Flower Mound Republican, said Thursday.  “It prioritizes education, addresses transportation, secures our border and strengthens protections for abused and neglected children.”

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