Equal pay bill fails in committee as debate over alleged sexism at La. Capitol flares

Published: May. 20, 2016 at 12:21 AM CDT
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BATON ROUGE, LA (WAFB) - A bill aimed at closing the wage gap between men and women failed to advance out of House committee Thursday, as conversations about sexism in the workplace flared at the State Capitol.

With a largely partisan vote of 10 to 5, the House Labor and Industrial Relations Committee decided to involuntarily defer the so-called Equal Pay Act. All of the Republicans on the panel voted against the measure.

"It's not been a good week for women in the Louisiana legislature," said Rep. Helena Moreno, D-New Orleans, who testified before the committee in support of the measure.

Sponsored by Sen. JP Morrell, D-New Orleans, SB 254 had already made it successfully through the Senate.

Advocates for the bill, including Gov. John Bel Edwards, said on average women make 65 cents for every dollar a man makes in state. This bill would work to mitigate that wage gap by requiring employers to prove they pay equally.

In both the Senate and the House, the bill faced pushback from business community leaders who expressed concern that the bill would tie business owners up in lawsuits.

Facing pushback from the committee, Moreno and others even asked lawmakers to consider advancing the bill without a favorable or negative recommendation, instead allowing the full House to make a decision on the measure.

"If you do that, it will be a headline in tomorrow's paper that talks about something positive for women, instead of course what we all woke up to this morning, a horrible headline. If you look at it, this was a slap in the face to women across the state," Moreno told the committee.

On Wednesday, Louisiana make national headlines after a state representative caused an uproar on the House floor. Lawmakers were debating a bill by Sen. Ronnie Johns, R-Lake Charles, aimed at cutting back on human trafficking.

SB 468 would raise the age requirement for exotic dancers from 18 to 21. During floor debate, Rep. Kenny Havard, R-Jackson, offered what he called a "joke" amendment aimed at exposing what he considered a case of over-regulation. It would cap the age at 28 years old and require that dancers not weigh more than 160 lbs.

The amendment was quickly rebuked, including the following exchange:

Rep. Nancy Landry, R-Lafayette: "Rep. Havard, are you saying that women over 28 and over a certain weight are not fit to be strippers or dancers?" 
Rep. Havard: "No ma'am I'm just worried about their health and wouldn't want them to hurt one another."

Rep. Julie Stokes, R-Kenner, made an impassioned speech about sexism at the legislature.

"I hear derogatory comments toward women in this place regularly. I hear and see women get treated differently than men, and I'll tell you what, you gave me a perfect forum to talk about it right now 'cause it has got to stop. That was utterly disrespectful and disgusting," said Rep. Julie Stokes, R-Kenner.

A day later, the outcry continued. The Speaker of the House, Rep. Taylor Barras, R-New Iberia, said the amendment exhibited a "lack of judgment."

Meanwhile, during a press conference, the governor called the comment unfortunate and in bad taste.

"We don't have enough females in the House and Senate today, and if we had more I suspect these types of things might not occur," Edwards said.

Some lawmakers defended Havard's character, though not necessarily his amendment.

"I don't think that he had ill motives. I think he's simply making an attempt at humor – something that probably in retrospect he wish he had not done," said Rep. Chris Broadwater, R-Hammond.

In an interview, Havard was defiant and refused to apologize.

"In my opinion, and this might offend some people too, this has gotten on a kick that you've got to be politically correct, and you don't have to be politically correct in this country. You have a right to offend and you have a right to be offended," Havard said.

In light of the amendment and the failure of the Equal Pay Act, Moreno has launched an online petition with the hashtag #itsnotokay aimed at changing the discourse about women's issues.

The Equal Pay Act was part of the governor's package, and thus its failure in committee is a defeat for the Edwards Administration.

"The failure of the House Labor Committee to pass the Equal Pay Act today is a true disservice to the women of our state," said Gov. Edwards in a statement Thursday. "Very few issues have the support of 90 percent of Louisiana, but the support for legislation granting equal pay for equal work crosses the political spectrum."

Different lawmakers have tried over the past several years to pass an equal pay bill and many of those times, it has not been able to make it out of committee.

Lawmakers passed a bill in 2013 dealing with paycheck fairness, but it only applies to state government workers.

A study from the American Association of University Women and the federal government released in September found Louisiana has the most unequal pay-gap in the US. It stated women in Louisiana make 65 cents to a man's dollar.

Researchers said a wage gap was present even when they compared similar jobs with similar education and experience.

Click here for more on the study.

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