- Associated Press - Thursday, May 19, 2016

BATON ROUGE, La. (AP) - Lawmakers in the Louisiana House handed Gov. John Bel Edwards a significant defeat for his legislative agenda Thursday, rejecting an equal pay bill that had been a cornerstone of Edwards’ campaign for governor.

The Senate had backed the measure requiring private businesses to pay the same wages to men and women who perform the same work. But the House labor committee voted 10-5 against advancing the bill to the full House for debate.

Louisiana has the largest pay gap in the nation, and bill supporters cited statistics showing that women in Louisiana consistently earn less across occupations. Women in Louisiana earn 65 cents on average for every dollar a man earns, compared to a national average of 79 cents, according to the governor’s office.

The proposal would apply an equal pay law governing state workers to private industry, outlining how to file discrimination complaints and, possibly, lawsuits.

In a statement released following the committee’s vote, Edwards called the bill’s rejection “a true disservice to the women of our state.”

Opponents, including the state’s largest business lobbying groups, said the measure would encourage frivolous litigation at an employer’s expense. People can often handle issues without legal threats, they argued.

Rep. Chris Broadwater, R-Hammond, pitched an amendment that he said would align Morrell’s proposal with current law and protect against unfounded lawsuits. Broadwater couldn’t gain enough support for his amendment after lengthy debate and, without the change, he also voted against the proposal.

The committee split largely along party lines in the final vote, with the majority of panel Democrats voting to advance the measure and Republicans against it.

The panel’s sole female lawmaker, Rep. Dodie Horton, R-Haughton, voted against the bill, saying she supports equality for women but that current law already protects employees who believe they’re entitled to more compensation and have been paid unequally compared to a worker of a different gender.

Critics agreed, questioning whether the proposal was necessary.

“The existing law is very clear,” said Rep. Alan Seabaugh, R-Shreveport. “The remedy is already there.”

Seabaugh said the proposed bill “would actually make it worse” by setting a time limit on back pay rewards when current law allows the court to reward back wages, compensatory damages and attorney fees in wage discrimination lawsuits. A worker who successfully sues would be entitled to up to three years of unpaid wages, under Morell’s proposal.

Supporting lawmakers spoke about their own mothers, sisters and daughters and argued the proposal would promote equality. The state’s pay “disparity prevents our wives, daughters, sisters, and other women from earning equal pay for equal work, and that directly impacts children and families who many in the legislative body espouse they value,” Edwards said in his statement.

“Actions speak louder than words, and the time has come to stop talking about family values and start making decisions that actually value families,” he said.

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Senate Bill 254: www.legis.la.gov


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