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Wagner includes transportation operations in fight against sex trafficking

U.S. Rep Ann Wagner, a Republican from Ballwin, raised $804,000 from Jan. 1 to March 31.
File photo | Jason Rosenbaum I St. Louis Public Radio

U.S. Rep. Ann Wagner of Missouri says coordination between private area transportation operations is crucial in the fight against sex trafficking, especially since St. Louis has become a hub in the illegal trade.

The Ballwin Republican met Thursday with representatives from rail and bus companies, along with Uber and Lyft ridesharing services. During the closed-door meeting, they discussed ways that drivers and employees can spot potential trafficking victims, who are often underage and forced into the sex trade.

Wagner said the problem is growing, largely because it’s a money-maker for the criminals who exploit the victims. “This is a business, a multimillion-dollar human-trafficking business that is local, it is statewide, it is federal and it is international.”  

Wagner is among several area lawmakers in both parties who have sponsored legislation aimed at curbing the human trafficking problem. U.S. Sen. Claire McCaskill, a Democrat, has been actively involved in pressing for legislation and prosecutions. So has her possible GOP rival, Missouri Attorney General Josh Hawley.

But Wagner observed that legislation can only go so far. “Legislation is just one aspect of this fight,’’ she said. “Education, awareness, cooperation are really the ways to eradicate the scourge of sex trafficking.”

Lindsey Ellis, executive director of the Covering House, was among those joining Wagner for the roundtable on Thursday. Ellis' agency helps trafficking victims. She said the average age at her St. Louis facility is 15, but Covering House has handled victims as young as 7.

Fights loom over debt ceiling, budget

When Congress reconvenes Tuesday, Wagner acknowledged that money matters will be the chief topics.

The House and Senate must approve a government spending package by Sept. 30 to avoid a shutdown. Lawmakers also need to raise the federal debt ceiling, which allows the government to borrow money and avoid defaulting on current debts.

Wagner dismissed any shutdown talk. “There will not be a government shutdown.”

But she also faces a dilemma. Raising the debt ceiling will likely be part of the final spending package. “I am loathe to raise the debt ceiling, and I have not voted to raise the debt ceiling in the past,” Wagner said.

But this time, she’s not staking out a firm position until the House finishes crafting the new budget. That action will likely influence the debt ceiling debate.

“I am going to see what the package is, that they put forward,” Wagner said. “I never announce anything until all things come together.”

The House will be pressed to act quickly. The Treasury Department says the debt ceiling must be raised by Sept. 29.

Once those two issues are addressed, Wagner expects Congress to then turn to President Donald Trump’s call for tax cuts.  She was among the Missouri Republicans to join the president in Springfield on Wednesday.

Follow Jo on Twitter: @jmannies

Jo Mannies is a freelance journalist and former political reporter at St. Louis Public Radio.