The Montana State Capitol

A statue of Thomas Francis Meagher, first governor of the Montana Territory, is shown is front of the Montana state Capitol in this IR file photo.

As the state Legislature moves toward finalizing a set of rules referencing its first comprehensive policy on sexual harassment, lawmakers are wrestling over how to deal with the diverse group of people who work in the Capitol during the session.

There's agreement over what's acceptable conduct for lawmakers and legislative staff and what should happen when those standards are violated.

But lawmakers have struggled with how to handle people who work in the building but not for the Legislature. That would include members of the public, lobbyists and the media.

The disagreement is over whether groups that are not employed by the Legislature should be subject to the rules that govern the body and the anti-harassment and discrimination policy referenced in them.

Three categories — the public, lobbyists and members of the media — have bounced back and forth between being specifically named in or removed from a section of the joint rules that reads "legislators, legislative employees and all participants in the legislative process have the right to work free of discrimination, harassment and retaliation."

The Senate initially cut the three groups, but the House added them back last week. But Tuesday morning a specially appointed committee with members from both the House and Senate again removed the groups.

Those who want the parties added back say their inclusion is what the Legislative Council, which drafted an anti-harassment policy during the past 18 months, originally intended. They added the groups should be included to have a safe and respectful working space for everyone at the Capitol during the 90-day legislative session held every two years. 

Opposition includes legislators who say bringing people who have other employers under the Legislature's human resources process isn't possible and there are other avenues to deal with inappropriate behavior from the public, lobbyists and media.

The rules themselves do not contain the text of a new sexual harassment policy that was adopted by the Legislative Council just before the start of the session, but reference that policy as an amendment.

State legislatures have been creating or revamping sexual harassment policies in the wake of the national #MeToo Movement. Montana's Legislature disclosed earlier this month it had a report of harassment that helped lawmakers recognize the need for a new policy.

Rep. Kim Dudik, a Democrat from Missoula, said the three groups were included in legislative rules dating back to 1993 and 2017. She said not including the groups now would make the rules less protective than what's been included for more than 25 years.

Sen. Fred Thomas, who is carrying the rules resolution, said including the groups in past sessions was OK because the rules had only about five paragraphs that discussed sexual harassment and discrimination and did not cite the new substantial policy that includes reporting and investigating complaints.

People who work in the Capitol but not for the Legislature can't be subject to its human resources policy, Thomas said. 

"We wouldn't try to discipline a person from the media or lobbyists. That's up to their employer to do that," Thomas said.

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If a legislator is accused of harassing a member of the media, a lobbyist or a member of the public, Thomas said those complaints could be brought to legislative leadership, as well as go through the Montana Human Rights Bureau within the Department of Labor and Industry or through courts.

"I think we should not have our policy apply to lobbyists and media persons particularly, and the public as well, because there's other means of dealing with it," Thomas said.

Rep. JP Pomnichowski said she disagreed with Thomas and that the Legislative Council meant to include those three groups in the policy it created. She pointed to a note in the policy that clarifies how reports of violations should be made, saying the note includes processes for the public, media, lobbyists and others.

"That's exactly what we meant," Pomnichowski said. "All participants in the legislative process have the right to work free of discrimination and harassment. If we pull off these members, then we are really subjecting ourselves to a standard that others are not expected to meet."

Thomas said the disagreement is the result of a "disconnect" over the reach of the policy.

"This is not a policy that applies to everybody. This is a human resources policy that applies to the Legislature and our employees. This isn't something for the rest of the world and the rest of the state," Thomas said. "They're not part of this. They work here for someone else, and that's what their role is. This is our HR policy."

Democrats Pomnichowski and Dudik voted against stripping the three groups from the rules, while Republicans Thomas, Rep. Derek Skees, Rep. Forrest Mandeville and Sen. Mark Blasdel voted for it.

Pomnichowski also had a separate bill, which was tabled in committee last week, that would have created a code of conduct for lobbyists and required lobbyists go through harassment training similar to what lawmakers do.

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State Bureau reporter for The Independent Record.

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