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Montana Legislature

State legislators gather on the House floor during legislative orientation. The 2019 legislative session starts on Jan. 7.

On Tuesday, the Montana Legislature’s Joint Rules Committee voted to advance an important new policy some 18 months in the making. The updated rules explicitly describe and prohibit discrimination, sexual harassment and retaliation; create a process for making a complaint; and provide a set of possible sanctions for lawmakers who violate the policy.

While such rules would seem to be plain common sense, and long overdue, some legislators have previously questioned the need for them. In answer, they need only look up recent news reports.

Sexual assault and harassment are receiving more attention nationally than they ever have before, with high-profile lawmakers and celebrities losing their jobs amid accusations of inappropriate behavior. Closer to home, this past week saw similar concerns surface in western Montana.

Missoula law enforcement and the Montana Human Rights Bureau have received at least four complaints about a supervisor at a local indoor dog park over the past year. And last week, students at Thompson Falls High School led a walk-out over what they perceive as the failure of administrators to take their concerns about student bullying and sexual harassment seriously.

Montana legislators should learn from these lessons, and not wait until after a major problem arises to address sexual harassment. The proposed anti-harassment policy is a proactive step that will help protect legislators, legislative staff and others by clarifying the rules and assuring victims that reports of bad behavior will not go ignored.

Unfortunately, the current proposal was stripped of a requirement that legislators receive training about sexual harassment. While such training will be mandatory for legislative staff, it is only optional for Montana’s legislators. This is a missed opportunity, because it’s likely that those most in need of such training are the least likely to attend.

Now, it will be incumbent on legislators to give this policy a close read and then vote for it to be made law. Montanans should watch closely to make sure their elected senators and representatives vote in support of these rules. Any legislators who vote “no” should be urged by their constituents to better educate themselves on this issue.

The state Legislative Council began reviewing the current laws in the wake of the #MeToo movement, and recommended changes after researching policies in other states. Under Montana’s new policy, any credible complaints would be investigated and, if they are substantiated, offending legislators could be ordered to attend training, removed from a committee, called to testify before the ethics committee or reported to law enforcement, depending on the severity of the violation.

The proposal also outlines steps to maintain confidentiality for both the accuser and the accused until a decision is issued by the Legislative Conduct Panel, which will hear any complaints and determine the best course of action. This includes the possibility of turning the complaint over to an outside investigator.

The panel will consist of the Senate president and minority leader, and the House speaker and minority leader, with the Human Resources Manager and Chief Legal Council serving as staff. Further, according to the new rules, the panel must meet within three business days during the legislative session or 15 days during the interim, so complaints can be handled promptly.

Sen. Scott Sales, R-Bozeman, served as Senate president in the previous session and was elected to continue in that role for the 2019 session. At a legislative council meeting over the summer, Sales said he didn’t understand “why we're going to treat this differently than other bad conduct we have." However, he ultimately voted with his colleagues to advance the policy.

Sales also pointed out that, thus far, he’s aware of only one official complaint against a Montana legislator over a period of at least seven terms. That could very well be because all of Montana’s lawmakers, unlike those in other states, are completely above reproach. Or it could be because the current process for making a complaint is inadequate and victims are fearful of retaliation.

The Associated Press has reported that, over just the past two years, at least 76 lawmakers in other states have been accused of sexual misconduct. Of these, 30 resigned or were forced out of office, and more than two dozen others faced other repercussions including formal reprimands, sensitivity training and lost leadership positions. The AP’s list shows that sexual harassment isn’t exclusive to men, although the majority of perpetrators are men in positions of power over their victims.

When someone in a position of power uses that power to try to coerce someone else into a sexual relationship, it is a form of abuse. A special set of rules covering sexual harassment is necessary because, unlike other kinds of misconduct such as using foul language, sexual harassment is an abuse of power.

State legislators clearly hold a position of power — and public trust. Victims of sexual harassment, on the other hand, are susceptible to retaliation if they reject an unwanted advance or complain about inappropriate behavior. They may be treated with increased hostility or even lose their job.

If no complaints about sexual harassment are made in the Montana Legislature, it should be because no harassment has occurred — not because there’s no effective process for reporting it.

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