The Maryland Senate gave final approval to a bill that creates a new set of rules for dealing with sexual harassment complaints in the statehouse – the first major overhaul to the state’s anti-harassment policy in decades.
The bill heads back to the House, which passed it last month and is expected to approve the changes made by the Senate before the General Assembly adjourns on Monday at midnight.
“This session will be remembered for school construction, gun control, environmental protection and for Me Too,” said Sen. Cheryl Kagan (D-Montgomery) on the floor before the vote. Kagan was one of several current lawmakers and former staffers who spoke publicly over the last weeks about their alleged harassment in hopes of shifting the culture in Annapolis.
The bill’s passage was part of the flurry of activity in Annapolis on Friday as legislators moved quickly to approve legislation before the 90-day session ends.
Del. Ariana Kelly (D-Montgomery), the bill sponsor and president of the Women Legislators of Maryland caucus, said the #MeToo movement empowered women to share their experiences and ultimately helped the bill gain momentum.
“This is a legislative manifestation of a larger movement where people are no longer willing to be silent,” she said. “We ultimately hope to see a culture change. The policies are changing and we expect the culture to change too, and the passage of this legislation is an indication that that is happening.”
Kelly said the changes made by the Senate strengthen the legislation – even though the Senate version replaces “sexual harassment” with “harassment” throughout the bill. Even the bill title was changed from “Legislative Branch of State Government – Sexual Harassment” to “State Government – Discrimination and Harassment.”
“It blunts the impact of the title, but not the policy,” Kelly said. “We changed the sexual harassment policy to include all forms of unlawful discrimination.”
The legislation was a top priority of the Women Legislators of Maryland caucus, which issued a report that detailed numerous alleged accounts of sexual harassment and offered dozens of recommendations to update the policy.
One of the most substantial changes requires an independent investigator to handle complaints.
Under the bill, the Joint Ethics Committee is required to refer complaints to an outside investigator, unless an alleged victim objects. It also must notify the alleged victim of the investigator’s findings. The legislation also prohibits a legislator or member of state government to use state funds to settle a harassment or discrimination claim.
The original House bill only dealt with the legislative branch and lobbyists, which have never been a part of the state’s anti-harassment policy. The Senate expanded the measure to include the members of the executive branch.
The legislation requires the legislative policy committee to update the anti-harassment policy every two years and requires the Department of Legislative Services to maintain electronic records of training attendance for five years and publish attendance on the General Assembly’s website.
The bill requires the Ethics Commission to provide a “training related to discrimination and harassment” to lobbyists every two years. It also sets up a procedure for lobbyists who are harassed for filing a complaint.
It was unclear for much of the session whether the legislation would advance. Senate President Thomas V. Mike Miller Jr. (D-Calvert) and House Speaker Michael E. Busch (D-Anne Arundel) set up a commission in January to review the harassment policies of all three branches of government. The panel’s final report is expected in December, and Miller previously indicated that he wanted to wait until then before changing policies.
Also on Friday, the Senate gave final approval to a bill that imposes a $250 fine and one point against a person who drives while using a cell phone. The Senate amended the House bill by reducing the fine by half and adding the point against the driver’s license.
The Senate also passed a so-called “red flag” bill that makes develops a procedure for getting guns out of the hands of people who are danger to themselves or others and a measure that allows the state to sell the naming rights of rest areas to businesses.
Via Washington Post