Senate panel begins discussion about sexual harassment policy

  • Johnathan Silver
  • American-Statesman Staff
Dec 14, 2017
State Sen. Lois Kolkhorst, R-Brenham, chairwoman of the Senate Administration Committee, leads a hearing about the Senate’s sexual harassment policy at the Capitol on Thursday. JAY JANNER / AMERICAN-STATESMAN

The Texas Senate could meet in the coming months to establish a new sexual harassment policy.

Amid reports of sexual misconduct by staffers and lawmakers at the Capitol, members of the Senate Administration Committee met Thursday to discuss possible changes to the policy.

Committee Chairwoman Lois Kolkhorst, R-Brenham, said she plans to make recommendations to Lt. Gov. Dan Patrick and Secretary of the Senate Patsy Spaw.

“It’s the beginning of a process,” Kolkhorst said.

Thursday’s meeting followed allegations, published in the Daily Beast, that Democratic Sens. Carlos Uresti of San Antonio and Borris Miles of Houston engaged in sexual misconduct. Both refuted the claims. Neither senator serves on the Administration Committee.

READ: ‘PATHETIC’: Texas AG aide resigns after criticizing ‘#MeToo’ movement

“The reality is that this is a human resources issue, but it is also a human respect issue,” Kolkhorst said. “On one hand, we must always strive for a policy that protects everyone’s dignity and their ability to feel safe. And on the other hand, we must respect everyone’s right to be presumed innocent until investigative facts prove otherwise.”

Kolkhorst said that in conversations with senators, they have said sexual harassment training should be mandatory for all employees and senators, but lawmakers in both chambers have agreed such a policy can’t be enforced for an elected official. Kolkhorst and other members of the committee, though, said the Senate could use other mechanisms to force training, including with a “caucus resolution” or by tying training to access to benefits. That type of action would require all senators to be involved in the decision.

“We need unanimity on this,” said Sen. Royce West, D-Dallas, who also called for a review of policies from throughout the country to establish best practices.

Sen. Judith Zaffirini, D-Laredo, said a new policy should spell out how staff should respond to a complaint while ensuring an accuser’s protection.

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Sen. Sylvia Garcia, D-Houston, questioned whether lawmakers should be involved in investigating sexual harassment allegations and called for an independent body to handle such complaints. Garcia, who isn’t a member of the committee, added that the more people involved in making a new policy, the better.

During the hearing, Spaw revealed that only one sexual harassment claim had been made in her time as secretary of the Senate. It was in 2001, her first year on the job, and involved two staffers, she told senators. Garcia said she was surprised by the number and said later that more people would come forward if they became more comfortable with reporting misconduct.

The House Administration Committee unanimously approved an updated sexual harassment policy this month that gives examples of such harassment, offers guidance for internal and external complaint processes and lays out counseling information. The policy also mandates sexual harassment training for staff and members.