As budgetary quicksand threatens to swallow Louisiana, Gov. John Bel Edwards and special interests are focusing, instead, on a business-hampering “equal pay” problem that does not exist.

Over the past few years, extremist Louisiana legislators have proposed legislation that would make many private sector employers liable to explain, if not compensate for, alleged pay differences between men and women doing “comparable” work. Those bills gained some traction, but the concept received an additional boost when the newly elected Edwards championed this year’s version.

Citing data showing that the raw, aggregate, unadjusted full-time median salary of women in Louisiana is about two-thirds of that for men, the “equal pay” lobby is supporting Senate Bill 254. Sponsored by state Sen. J.P. Morell, D-New Orleans, the bill would empower the state to investigate companies with at least 50 employees over complaints about reputed pay differences between men and women. Under the proposed legislation, companies in the cross hairs could capitulate by paying an employee damages — or go through a legal process that costs the employer time and money.

But the statistic at the heart of this debate is horribly misleading. It doesn’t take into account that women typically work fewer hours than men, spend fewer years in the workforce with more interruptions to their careers, take more time off when in the labor force and make different occupational choices. Studies of national data that consider these factors, plus education and other differences, consistently reveal that the presumed gap in wages becomes statistically insignificant — or that small differences emerge favoring one or the other sex depending on demographics.

Yet, not only does the bill justify itself with a fictional discrepancy, it advances the concept of “unintentional discrimination” as a basis for action against an employer — despite that discrimination is a conscious decision. What’s more, discrimination makes no sense to bosses seeking to maximize profits. If women do the same work more cheaply, managers should replace all the men with women.

Banning spurious “unintentional discrimination” would only impose unnecessary and wasteful costs on business.

Senators tried to amend out the unintentional discrimination passage but failed narrowly. At least they eliminated the original version’s odious comparable worth phrasing, which, for legal purposes, would have replaced a market-based determination of a job’s compensation with one calculated by subjective judgments. Such an interpretation would have found illegal wage discrimination by sex, for example, in the fact that the mainly female occupation of social worker has a median income several thousand dollars below that of the mainly male occupation of plumbing.

Unfortunately, the Senate last week passed SB 254, which would make criminals out of employers who have no intent to discriminate by sex by paying workers according to free market principles. Making it statute would provide ideological platforms for extremists invested in portraying women as victims of sexism.

Hopefully, the House of Representatives will get lawmakers back on track in dealing with important concerns by rejecting this nonsense.

Jeff Sadow is an associate professor of political science at Louisiana State University Shreveport, where he teaches Louisiana Government. He is author of a blog about Louisiana politics at www.between-lines.com, where links to information in this column may be found. When the Louisiana Legislature is in session, he writes about legislation in it at www.laleglog.com. Follow him on Twitter @jsadowadvocate. Write to him at jeffsadowtheadvocate@yahoo.com. His views do not necessarily express those of his employer.