Associated Press

ST. PAUL, Minn. (AP) _ The Minnesota Senate passed a cluster of measures Wednesday designed to help women in the workplace that include steps to level pay, longer parental leave and assurances they have private rooms for nursing when they return.

The 51-14 vote sets up a likely negotiation with the House, which passed legislation that goes even further. The Democratic-led House also has the option of embracing the Senate version. Democratic Gov. Mark Dayton supports the thrust of the bills and has urged lawmakers to get him something to sign before the May 19 adjournment deadline.

All Senate Democrats voted for the bill, which they framed as overdue steps to give women more employment security. The effort dovetails with a national push by Democrats to implement more safeguards for female workers. The Republicans who opposed the measure said it involves too much government interference.

The legislation, dubbed the Women’s Economic Security Act by supporters, would require many companies with state government contracts to certify they pay men and women similarly. It would prevent companies from retaliating against employees who openly discuss their wage disparities. Nursing rooms would have to be provided, other than a bathroom or toilet stall, with threats of fines for companies that don’t comply. The bill also establishes a competitive grant program for women who start their own companies in certain fields to help them with training, mentoring and networking.

Democratic Sen. Sandra Pappas of St. Paul, the bill’s sponsor, said state leaders should “do what we can to foster women’s participation in the workforce.”

Sen. Carrie Ruud, R-Breezy Point, said it delivers a disturbing message about reliance on government and could convey they are “victims” in society.

“What are we telling women? Unless the government steps up you’re not smart enough, you’re not tough enough, you’re not capable enough to be successful on your own?” Rudd said.

Republican Sen. Julianne Ortman of Chanhassen, a candidate for U.S. Senate, tried unsuccessfully to break the bill apart so more-popular provisions could travel on their own, such as a doubling of the potential unpaid pregnancy and parenting leave to 12 weeks and permission for women to use sick leave if they are victims of sexual or domestic abuse. The change would put Minnesota among several states that now allow up to 12 weeks for parental leave; Connecticut allows up to 16 weeks for family leave.

Ortman and others have objected to new paperwork requirements for government vendors with more than 40 employees and contracts exceeding $500,000. Under the bill, they must certify that they are in full compliance with equal pay and civil right laws. Those that don’t could have their contracts voided.

Pappas said existing “pay laws have been difficult to enforce” because they depend in large part on employees blowing the whistle if they think they’ve been treated unfairly.

While some Republicans rose to voice concern with the reach of the bill, a few of them wound up casting votes in favor anyway. Sen. Dan Hall, R-Burnsville, said he refused to go along even if it would look better politically.

 “I will not stand here and vote for a bill that promotes one gender over another,” he said.