It’s a funny thing that happens when the legislative leadership reaches gender parity — an extended conversation about passing stronger protections against sexual harassment in the workplace. The ascension of state Sen. Susan Kent’s election to Senate DFL minority leader brought female representation among caucus leaders to 50%.
Women outnumbered men at the annual Forum News Service pre-session legislative preview, which also included DFL Gov. Tim Walz and GOP Senate Majority Leader Paul Gazelka. House Deputy Minority Leader Rep. Anne Neu filled in for Minority Leader Kurt Daudt.
House Speaker Melissa Hortman, DFL-Brooklyn Park, said Kent’s role as caucus leader now ensures women will have more of a say during legislative negotiations. “It’ll be nice to have another ally in the room and not be the only woman leader of the four leaders,” Hortman said. Kent said she intends to support legislation that would make it easier for victims of sexual harassment to take their claims to court. “I definitely look forward to working with the Speaker on this.”
Gazelka denounced sexual harassment as wrong, but he added, “Changing the law is always complicated, and that’s part of the issue.”
Walz pledged to do more within state government to provide better protections for state workers, and said he believes sexual harassment is more pervasive than some might think. “I don’t have a woman in my life that hasn’t explained to me how pervasive it is,” he said.
Neu added that in her experience, she’s spoken up when male colleagues make inappropriate remarks or comments that might make women uncomfortable. “Perhaps times are changing and they came up in a time where things were considered appropriate, and I think we do need some guidance in helping our colleagues understand what that is,” she said, adding that as a whole, the Legislature is a “safe” place.
The discussion on sexual harassment all together lasted nearly 15 minutes for the hour and 22 minute forum.
Aside from the issue of sexual harassment, the four caucus leaders and Walz outlined their biggest priorities for the projected budget surplus.
Kent: More matching grants for school counselors, psychologists and nurses.
Hortman: Expanded early childhood education.
Walz: Bonding bill.
Gazelka and Neu: Fully exempting Social Security income from income taxes.
The biggest divisions came on issues of new gun laws, taxes and education.
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