A bill that would create an explicit ban on lawmakers sexually harassing their employees and colleagues is advancing in the Kentucky legislature.
The legislature’s ethics code doesn’t currently prohibit sexual harassment, though lawmakers have been punished for harassing staffers under a rule that forbids misuse of their official positions.
But on Thursday, the House State Government Committee unanimously passed House Bill 60, which would make sexual harassment an offense in the legislative ethics code and create a new reporting process.
Rep. Kim Moser, a Republican from Taylor Mill and one of the bill’s sponsors, said the legislation is intended to help victims and protect the confidentiality of both the accused and those who say they have been harassed.
“Republicans and Democrats both agree that we as employees and legislators and any staff here deserve to be treated with dignity and respect,” Moser said.
“We must do all that we can to protect the confidentiality and protection for all parties in reporting and investigating sexual harassment, any discrimination and misconduct of any type.”
A similar version of this bill passed out of the House last year but was never taken up by the Senate.
The proposal comes after high profile allegations of sexual harassment in recent years. Most recently, a staffer for Republicans in the House of Representatives accused then-House Speaker Jeff Hoover of repeatedly groping and harassing her throughout her two-and-a-half year employment.
She also accused three other Republican lawmakers of making vulgar statements to her and propositioning her for sex.
In sealed testimony in a related whistle-blower lawsuit, the woman said that she felt uncomfortable reporting the lawmakers’ behavior, saying that doing so would “ruin any chance of advancing.”
Until recently, partisan staffers were required to go through their political supervisors to report harassment.
The Legislative Research Commission, the agency that oversees legislative employees, last month expanded its reporting protocol to include partisan staff as well as non-partisan — allowing staffers to report harassment to the LRC human resources director.
Moser’s proposal creates an expansive definition of sexual harassment, including “unwelcome sexual advance, request for sexual favors, or other verbal or physical conduct or communication of a sexual nature.”
It also creates a reporting protocol where the Legislative Ethics Commission would investigate claims made against lawmakers and the Legislative Research Commission would oversee claims against other staff.
The legislation would allow the commissions to dismiss a complaint “if the complainant publicly discloses or comments on the complaint.”
It also says that in determining whether harassment occurred, the commissions will determine whether the the alleged behavior is “welcomed by the person to whom the incident is directed.”
Rep. Derrick Graham, a Democrat from Frankfort, said he worried that staff might still end up reporting to their political overseers because the Legislative Research Commission is currently headed by the chiefs of staff of the House and Senate.
“I just want to make sure that under the current way we are operating right now, our employees are feeling safe enough that they can approach those individuals that they need to approach to settle the problem that they are having,” Graham said.
Senate Chief of Staff Becky Harilson and her House counterpart David Floyd have been the interim leaders of the LRC since House Speaker David Osborne and Senate President Robert Stivers didn’t renew the contract of the agency’s previous director.
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Majority Floor Leader Damon Thayer is sponsoring a bill in this year’s legislative session that would require programs to give only one sterile syringe for every dirty needle that’s turned in at local health departments.
SB 69 is awaiting a vote in Senate Health and Welfare Committee.