CROSS WISE: Boxed In The Louisiana Family Forum’s dogged focus on culture war issues — and culture war issues alone — prevents it from actually addressing the real issues that face Louisiana families.

by Pearson Cross

The Louisiana Family Forum supported a bill (HB 349) in the last legislative session that would prohibit a “state agency from inquiring about an applicant for employment’s criminal history until after an interview or a conditional offer of employment is made.” This kind of bill is popularly known as “banning the box.”

While banning the box is demonstrably important for poor families who desperately need their providers to find jobs, I was surprised to find that the LFF was supporting this bill. That reaction arose from the LFF’s history of supporting bills with only the slightest relationship to families or, in some cases, an arguably detrimental impact on families. As the most powerful non-business lobby in Louisiana, LFF has demonstrated a remarkable ability to sway, persuade, cajole, threaten and encourage legislators to support its agenda.

Its agenda, in turn, typically focuses on tightening regulation on abortion providers, challenging the rights of the LGBT community, channeling public money to private schools, asserting the primacy of Christianity over all other religions and demonizing opponents as Satan-inspired.

Led by Gene Mills, a former youth pastor with close ties to Tony Perkins of the Family Research Council and former Gov. Bobby Jindal, the LFF has succeeded in Louisiana for three reasons: it has pushed aside other challengers and established itself as the loudest and most persistent voice of faith and family in Louisiana; it has built firm ties with conservative evangelical churches all across Louisiana; and it has immersed itself in legislative politics.

The success that LFF has had in legislative politics depends on the close relationships formed by leader Mills with legislators, the large number of deeply religious and conservative legislators elected in Louisiana and the success of events like this year’s Legislative Awards Gala, which will take place Sept. 15 at Healing Place Church in Baton Rouge. At the gala, the forum will be celebrating those legislators who supported or “voted with” the LFF 100 percent of the time, 90 percent of the time and so on. The vast majority of these legislators are Republicans, although a few Democrats like Sen. John Milkovich of Shreveport top the LFF’s list regularly. The bills on which support is measured were selected by the LFF from the more than 1,000 introduced during the typical legislative session.

In the 2016 session, the LFF supported bills strengthening work requirements for food stamp recipients, bolstered concealed carry rights, allowed pastors to decline participation in same-sex marriage, prohibited “sanctuary” cities and opposed a survey to learn about student sexual practices. Two bills on the LFF’s list concerned abortion — the first extending the period for “informed consent” and the second strengthening the “no public funds” stance of the state for organizations that perform abortions.

Although the LFF-flagged bills cover many subjects, it is in the area of abortion legislation where the LFF has had its largest successes. In the 2016 session, no fewer than six bills on abortion-related topics were passed. These bills joined the large group of previously passed bills regulating abortion, which indicates why Louisiana was ranked by the pro-choice organization NARAL as the “state most opposed to abortion.” The 2016 votes on HB386 (89 yes, 5 no) and HB606 (84 yes, 8 no) illustrate the near-unanimous position of the Legislature on this issue.

No one doubts that Louisiana needs organizations advocating for the family, but as long as the Supreme Court has the last word on abortion, gun rights and free speech, there is little Louisiana politicians can do in these areas. Hence, the LFF’s unrelenting focus on these and other “untouchable” issues is unproductive and misplaced. And more important, the LFF’s current focus ignores the many urgent, significant and real challenges facing Louisiana families and children.

A June 2016 report by the Annie E. Casey Foundation, which compared economic and health data, educational quality and community strength, ranked Louisiana as the 48th most kid-friendly state. This report came on the heels of a Politico report that ranked Louisiana last among all 50 states based on educational achievement, obesity and poverty rates, and crime. In August 2016, a WalletHub report ranked Louisiana’s educational system as the very worst in the U.S.

A 2007 study that had ranked Louisiana a dismal 49th overall in child welfare issues was conducted before the retrenchment of the Jindal years, during which the state’s child welfare agency’s budget was cut from $297 million to $240 million (2014-15). In fact, as recently reported in The Advocate, the Department of Children and Family Services is in crisis, facing an unprecedented turnover of its employees — a quarter of all caseworkers left in 2015 — and drastically higher caseloads for those who remain.

While even a brief list of the pressing issues with enormous implication for family health and child welfare in Louisiana would be daunting, a short list should include the inadequate minimum wage, the need to enhance the Earned Income Tax Credit, the lack of state-supported child care for working mothers, the absence of a sensible family-leave policy, the need for low-income housing and increased funding for K-12 schools rather than cuts. But most of these are issues on which the Louisiana Family Forum is silent or, in some cases, actually opposes common sense reforms.

The LFF’s support for banning the box was a move in the right direction for families. Now it is time for the LFF to get really serious about families and children or change its name to something more appropriate to its activity.

Pearson Cross is an associate professor in the Political Science Department at UL Lafayette. He holds a Ph.D. from Brandeis University (1997), and his principal areas of teaching are state and local politics, and Southern politics. Cross interviews local politicians and newsmakers on his radio show, “Bayou to the Beltway,” which airs on KRVS 88.7 FM at 12:30 p.m. on Wednesdays and 5:30 p.m. on Saturdays. Contact him at [email protected].