The Senate on Tuesday approved legislation to put equal pay protection in state law.

The Senate voted 21-16 for the measure, shipping it to the House, where final passage is expected to be tough. A similar measure already was defeated in a House committee.

State Sen. Ed Murray said Louisiana now ranks 49th in the U.S. when it comes employees receiving the same pay for the same work regardless of sex. “I hope we can pass this bill to improve our position,” the New Orleans Democrat said.

A Louisiana Equal Pay for Women Act was adopted in 2013. But its reach was limited to state government employees.

The new initiative would expand equal pay protection to local government as well as private businesses with 50 or more employees.

“It applies to everybody in the state of Louisiana, all employees,” Murray said of Senate Bill 219, which was debated Tuesday. But it’s of major importance to the women of Louisiana who make about two-thirds of what their male colleagues do, he said.

A parade of senators opposed the measure, arguing that Murray’s bill would open the door to more lawsuits against businesses.

Of the 16 “no” votes, 15 were Republicans.

Sen. Jack Donahue, R-Mandeville, said Louisiana already embraces federal employment anti-discrimination laws.

“Nobody should underpay an employee. Do you think I’d allow my wife, daughter, sister to be underpaid?” Donahue said, adding that Murray’s legislation would “put one more nail in the coffin” of businesses that would have to fight frivolous claims of unfair pay.

“It creates another cause of action against those small businesses ... for an issue, I daresay, I have not heard any real statistics, evidence from real people that it’s a problem,” said Sen. Conrad Appel, R-Metairie.

Sen. Karen Peterson, D-New Orleans, said the legislation furthers the enforcement mechanism to make sure that women are paid equally. “This is not about more lawsuits,” she said.

“We have made a promise in the state of Louisiana to those who we represent to prevent discrimination,” said Sen. Dan Claitor, R-Baton Rouge. “This is the follow-through on the promise, as far as putting an enforcement mechanism behind it.”

Senate Bill 219 would cover state and local government as well as private sector employees who work for entities with 50 or more employees.

The legislation spells out procedures for filing a complaint with the Louisiana Human Rights Commission. Upon a commission finding, the employee or employer can file a lawsuit in state district court to challenge any determination. If the court finds a violation, the employee would be able to recover lost wages as well as damages up to the amount of the lost wages.

Follow Marsha Shuler on Twitter, @MarshaShulerCNB. For more coverage of the State Capitol, follow Louisiana Politics at http://blogs.the advocate.com/politicsblog.