No 'shiny, new' buildings and legislative pet projects; state dollars this year reserved for roads and repairs _lowres

Advocate staff photo by PATRICK DENNIS --The State Capitol building is aglow at sunset in this view from Capitol Park near the Old Arsenal.

Legislators are looking for ways to improve sexual harassment policies in state government, amid an increased national interest in the issue.

"I truly believe it is our duty as elected leaders to set the tone that sexual harassment will not be tolerated in government and it certainly will not be tolerated here at the State Capitol," Rep. Helena Moreno, a New Orleans Democrat who chairs the Legislative Women's Caucus, said during an initial hearing on sexual harassment policies Friday. "We as legislators, in particular, have a responsibility to create a comfortable environment free of harassment for all people who are working in this building."

Lawmakers received an overview of standing policies and discussed possible steps ahead, including an anonymous survey across state government to gather data, efforts to increase awareness about current harassment laws and other ways to move ahead with potential legislation in the session that starts March 12.

"I believe there are a couple of things that will come out of this," said Sen. Regina Barrow, D-Baton Rouge.

Sen. Sharon Hewitt, a Slidell Republican who has requested an audit into current policies and practices, said she would like more data about how prevalent harassment is in government.

"Are our policies and laws effective?" she said. "I don't have a feel for, do we have a big issue here or not?"

The Advocate reported last week that records show the state of Louisiana has paid nearly $1.3 million to settle sexual harassment claims over the past decade though 27 settlements, with payouts ranging from $5,500 to $150,000 apiece.

Among the accused in those cases were workers from colleges, hospitals, prisons and other government agencies. The list also included a settlement paid regarding allegations lodged against a state legislator.

In addition to the legislative review and legislative audit, Gov. John Bel Edwards has appointed a task force to review policies in his administration and various agencies.

During Friday's hearing, legislators voiced concern about the broad range of people who come into contact with legislators and legislative staff and whether they are adequately covered.

"The Legislature should have a policy that addresses sexual harassment of anyone," said Rep. Pat Smith, D-Baton Rouge. "We don't have clear-cut definitive guidelines."

Moreno said she hopes that the Women's Caucus can lead the effort to put in place protections for legislators, staffers, interns, lobbyists and others who work in the Capitol. 

A lobbyist for the Department of Children and Family Services testified that three decades ago, when he was a staffer for the House, an unnamed male member of the Legislature exposed himself to him in a restroom "and gave a rather vulgar proposition to me." He never told anyone about it until Friday's hearing.

"I didn't say anything, and truthfully it hadn't bothered me or caused me any problems over the years, but if someone speaks out then perhaps that would prevent a future victim," Chip Coulter told the panel. "I'm sitting in this committee today realizing that had I spoken out at the time maybe it would have prevented a future victim."

Follow Elizabeth Crisp on Twitter, @elizabethcrisp.