Florida officials, government employees and the lobbyists and contractors who deal with them could be subject to new rules and penalties for sexual harassment under a bill the House passed unanimously on Thursday.
The bill would require government agencies set up policies to prevent, prohibit and punish sexual harassment. All claims would be investigated and there is language to protect accusers' identities and to prohibit retribution for coming forward with a complaint. Violators could be fired, removed from office or fined. Lobbyists who harass could be barred from lobbying and contractors could be banned from doing business with the state.
Democratic Rep. Kristin Jacobs, who co-sponsored the bill, described how she was sexually harassed at her first job when she was 18 by a man who was much older.
"He would put his hand over my mouth and he would bend me backwards and he would make loud kissing noises on his hand," she said. "It went on every single day for about 10 months."
But she noted that harassment isn't a thing of the past.
"We think that the issues of sexual harassment in the workplace are from long ago, but sadly as we've learned in recent months, they are here in our Capitol. There has been and continues to be a culture of sexual harassment. This bill takes long, sweeping steps forward to change that culture."
But whether it becomes law is another question. A similar bill filed by Democratic Sen. Lauren Book was blocked by Republican Sen. Dennis Baxley, who refused to hear it in a committee he chairs.
That leaves Book scrambling to find another bill she can amend to keep the legislation alive with only a week left in the 60-day annual session.
"We have some ideas. We're working on it. Obviously, this is of tremendous importance," Book said.
The issue became a priority for the Legislature in the wake of reports of sexual misconduct at the Capitol.
Republican Sen. Jack Latvala stepped down after an investigation found evidence of sexual misconduct, Democratic Sen. Jeff Clemens resigned after admitting to an extramarital affair with a lobbyist and Public Service Commission appointee Ritch Workman stepped down after a senator accused him of touching her inappropriately.
Senate President Joe Negron vowed on the first day of the session that there would be zero tolerance for sexual misconduct. Yet his chamber may be where the effort dies.
Baxley said the time wasn't right to change laws to address the issue.
"You want to be responsive to what's going in current events, for sure, but we've also made some mistakes sometimes being reactionary," Baxley said. "My mindset was I don't think this is ready yet. I think we need to have some time to absorb what should you actually require in a statute."