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Montana lawmakers advance new sexual harassment policy

August 23, 2018

HELENA, Mont. (AP) — A panel of Montana lawmakers approved a revamped harassment and discrimination policy Thursday, moving the state closer to joining others that have changed their rules in response to the #MeToo movement and the growing number of sexual harassment claims against lawmakers across the nation.

The policy unanimously approved by the Legislative Council during its meeting in Lewistown lays out a detailed process on how to report, investigate and discipline legislators and staff accused of all forms of harassment, discrimination and retaliation.

It expands the current policy to include definitions and examples of sexual harassment, includes confidentiality and reporting provisions and triples the categories under which a person can make a harassment and discrimination claim, including gender identity, disabilities and others.

The Legislative Council made one important change before voting for the policy: It dropped a requirement that would have made harassment and discrimination prevention training mandatory for legislators. The new version makes training optional for lawmakers and mandatory for legislative staff.

House Minority Leader Jenny Eck, D-Helena, who co-wrote the policy, said she didn’t believe the council would vote for the measure without dropping the mandatory training requirement. The result is a well-vetted policy that’s as strong as can pass in the political process, she said.

“There was a unanimous vote and that says a lot as to where we’re headed,” Eck said. “I feel like we’ve come so far.”

The policy does not become official until joint legislative rules are amended to refer to the policy, and then voted on by the full Legislature when it convenes in January. The chairman of the council, Senate Majority Leader Fred Thomas, R-Stevensville, said he doesn’t foresee any obstruction to its passage.

“I have no doubt that this basic policy will be the policy of the state Legislature in January,” Thomas said. “It can be amended in some slight way, but it will be the basic policy of the state Legislature.”

Numerous sexual misconduct allegations against state lawmakers across the nation have come to the surface since last year, as the #MeToo movement gained momentum with people publicly revealing that they had been sexually harassed or assaulted. Since then, dozens of state lawmakers have left office or have been disciplined over misconduct claims.

There have been no sexual misconduct claims filed against a Montana lawmaker, which led Senate President Scott Sales, R-Bozeman, to question the need for a new policy. Sales said Thursday that he still believes sexual harassment isn’t a problem in the Montana Legislature, but he voted for the policy anyway after his main concern, the mandatory training requirement for lawmakers, was dropped.

“I know because of the heightened visibility this issue has gotten on a nationwide basis that some people think this issue is necessary, but I’d like to think Montana is different,” Sales said. “I think Montanans do an excellent job of selecting their legislators.”

Sales and Thomas said they did not believe the Montana Constitution allowed any policy to impose training requirements on individual legislators.

Thomas said the training will be emphasized to legislators, and Eck said she hopes the training will be held during a floor session to make it easier for lawmakers to participate.

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