Reform-minded Florida lawmakers are disagreeing over how to address sexual harassment. House Republicans have significantly expanded their measure. And that could make it more difficult for the two chambers to agree.
Senator Lauren Book and Representative Kristin Jacobs agreed on how to address Florida’s sexual harassment problem: ban it outright in the state’s ethics code, increase penalties for violators and set up a task force to make sure the reforms continue. But House Republicans want to expand that. House Speaker Richard Corcoran calls them the toughest rules in the nation. Eustis Republican Jennifer Sullivan is co-sponsoring the measure.
“It requires supervisors who observe or have direct sex harassment respond promptly and initiate required actions. It ensures the confidentiality of witnesses and subjects of harassment. Requires employee and public officer training. Requires suspected criminal conduct be promptly reported to law enforcement,” Sullivan said.
The bill would affect lawmakers, their staff and other state employees, lobbyists and Capitol visitors. The measure would also make agencies set workplace dating policies. And there are some protections for the accused too.
“And specifically saying one who makes a reporting to a public office that is intentionally false or maliciously made with reckless disregard for the truth or identity of subject of the harassment or the harasser commits a misdemeanor of the second degree,” Sullivan said.
House lawmakers, led by Speaker Corcoran, tacked all these measures on to a pre-existing bill regulating lobbyists. The chambers will have to work out those differences if they’re going to get it passed. Senator Book and Representative Jacobs say they’ll get on the same page.
“I think that Representative Jacobs and I started a process where we wanted everybody to come to the table to examine the culture that we know exists. And I think that really everybody wants to do what’s best for the people. So I don’t think that anything is insurmountable,” Book said.
“I would totally agree with that,” agreed Jacobs.
They say both measures are places to start, and can be changed. But the bill has to pass, says Jacobs.
“The culture that’s up here, it needs to change and this bill needs to pass. And we’re dedicated to making sure that happens,” Jacobs said.
Jacobs is fired up for a reason. Allegations of sexual misconduct have rocked the statehouse. Media reports have detailed affairs, harassment, coercion and assault in the state capitol. Senate Appropriations Chairman Jack Latvala resigned. That was after an investigation found probable cause that he forced a then-lobbyist into a sexual relationship in exchange for votes. That woman is now a legislative aide, to Senator Lauren Book. So it’s personal. You could hear the emotion in the Plantation Democrat's voice in a recent committee hearing.
“Mr. Chairman thank you so much for giving us the opportunity to present this bill today. And I say us, because I stand before you as a said…for a lot of folks," Book paused as her voice tightened with emotion. "So I want to thank you for you and the committee for giving us this time and giving us this day. This is the first step and this has meant a lot to a lot of people.”
To be clear, as it stands now, Legislative leaders in the House and Senate have the power to resolve some of these issues internally. Lawmakers, staff, and lobbyists can have complicated relationships. Without an independent investigator leading the way, there could be room for bias. But, Jacobs says first things first.
“We recognize we’re not going to get it right on the first shot out. This problem has evolved over decades and it’s a culture that needs to change. And change, while we wish it would happen overnight, it doesn’t always happen with the stroke of a pen in a new bill,” Jacobs said.
In the meantime, both bills are moving through the process. And the issue is really resonating with some politicos. Attorney General Pam Bondi personally came to a Senate committee meeting to pledge her support, which is pretty rare. And Miami Beach Democratic Representative David Richardson talked about his own experiences with harassment, something he’d never done before in public.
“Everyone knows that I’m an openly gay man. But there was a time in my life that I didn’t want people to know that I was gay because I thought it would hurt my career. And in my first job I was an auditor and there was a young straight female coworker, who every day, teased and taunted me of my sexual orientation,” Richardson said.
Richardson says there are many kinds of harassment and many kinds of harassers. And he hopes his colleagues will remember that.
The Senate bill has two more committee stops left. The House version is ready for a floor vote.