Topeka A House committee is recommending approval of a bill that essentially puts into law a rescinded executive order that prohibited sexual harassment of state workers.
Two weeks before Gov. Kathleen Sebelius' election in November, then-Gov. Bill Graves issued an executive order that voided dozens of previous executive orders, including one the prohibition of sexual harassment of state workers.
Graves administration officials said the repeal of 53 executive orders covering a 26-year period was done because the orders were outdated.
But several lawmakers said Graves' repeal of a 1982 executive order by then-Gov. John Carlin, which prohibited sexual harassment in state government, should be reversed.
The bill, recommended for passage by the House Commerce and Labor Committee was scheduled for consideration by the full House on Wednesday but was pulled down when several Republicans posed questions about whether the measure was needed. The legislation has been rescheduled for debate today.
The bill's sponsor, Rep. Annie Kuether, D-Topeka, tried in the past to get the Graves administration to address sexual harassment in the wake of lawsuits filed by former employees against the Kansas Department of Human Resources. The female workers alleged they were discriminated against and harassed because of their gender.
Referring to Sebelius, Kuether said, "This administration is not going to tolerate poor behavior, and I think that is a good message to send to state employees."
An official in the Graves administration defended her boss's Oct. 24 executive order that rescinded the sexual harassment prohibition.
"The thought behind pulling that as an executive order was that it was outdated and that we already have laws in place dealing with that issue," said Helen Pedigo, former deputy counsel for Graves.
Pedigo said there were federal laws prohibiting sexual harassment and state regulations under the Kansas Department of Administration that dealt with the issue.
But some lawmakers said the absence of a state law made Kansas more vulnerable to sexual harassment lawsuits because it would leave the state without a policy to show the courts of the state's efforts in stopping sexual harassment.
Then-House Minority Leader Jim Garner, D-Coffeyville, expressed concern about Graves' action on the Carlin executive order in a November memo to Sebelius.
"I am not aware of any specific regulations on the topic of harassment in the workplace, other than the repealed executive order," Garner said.
"There are federal protections under Title VII against sexual harassment in employment. But it is my understanding that the state of Kansas has always asserted 'sovereign immunity' arguing those federal laws do not provide any protection to state employees."
Garner is now Sebelius' acting secretary of the Kansas Department of Human Resources.