Florida lawmakers began moving forward Tuesday with proposals to fight sexual harassment in state government, an issue that's been under increased scrutiny with recent resignations and the national movement to put a focus on sexual misconduct.
The Senate Ethics and Election Committee unanimously passed a bill Tuesday that would create new penalties for elected officials, candidates, state agency workers and lobbyists who commit sexual harassment.
Democratic Sen. Lauren Book, who has spent her entire professional career helping victims of sexual abuse and seeking tougher penalties for abusers, choked up just before the vote as she talked about the bill. Earlier, she said sexual harassment has been largely ignored in the Capitol for years. She noted the Senate is supposed to have 40 members but is missing two who resigned over sexual scandals.
"For far too long bad actions have been able to hide in the shadows of this process, remnants of a good ol' boys club that has passed the baton of bad behavior from generation to generation and set the stage for sexual harassment, coercion and misconduct to continue," Book said. "Until now, you either got with the program, or you were intimidated, you were threatened or you were forced out."
Also Tuesday, the House released a similar proposal to fight sexual harassment. While there are differences in the proposals, there's more in common and not and Book and Democratic Rep. Kristin Jacobs were confident the differences would be worked out before the legislative session ends March 9.
Under Book's bill, state agency workers, elected officials, lobbyists and candidates could face fines of at least $5,000 and up to $20,000 if the Florida Commission on Ethics finds they have committed sexual harassment. Lobbyists could also be barred from lobbying.
Lobbyists and state officials would be required to review state law and polices on sexual harassment. The House and Senate proposals would create a task force to review sexual harassment in state government and make recommendations on preventing it. People who report harassment would be offered the service of a victim's advocate to help protect them from continued harassment or retaliation.
Jacobs said she was surprised after she was elected in 2014 just how much sexual misconduct was a problem in the Capitol.
"The stories are just shocking," she said. "The response from other members was, 'Well, everyone knows you don't close that member's door. If you're a woman you don't go in and let that door get closed.' It's like, 'Really? It's that common and we just have been putting up with it?' This is changing a culture."
In the past few months, 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.