Statehouse stalls as Dems stage walkout

 

UPDATE, 3/2/11: NUVO was unable to be in the statehouse today, but a spokesman for the House Democratic Caucus confirmed that Minority Leader B. Patrick Bauer (D-South Bend) came back from Illinois today to meet with House Speaker Brian Bosma (R-Indianapolis) in a meeting open to the press.

Bosma and Bauer agreed the meeting was a positive step, the spokesman said. Little movement was made toward specific concessions on either side.

The two men discussed three bills in particular: HB 1216, a bill that makes it illegal for the governments to require bidders on public work projects to hire union workers, or discriminate against bidders who refuse to work with unions; HB 1538, a prevailing wage measure; and HB 1003, a school vouchers bill (for details on the latter two, see below).

Party leaders have also asked Reps. Bill Crawford (D-Indianapolis), ranking minority member of the House Ways and Means Committee and Jeff Espich (R-Uniondale) the committee's chair, to discuss the budget together.

Bauer is said to be heading back to Illinois after his statehouse visit.

As House Democrats enter their second week of absence in an

attempt to block a package of aggressive Republican labor and education

reforms, Indiana has been thrust to the forefront of a national debate over the

fate of the American labor movement, with no resolution in sight.

Unlike the Wisconsin bill that has drawn massive protests

and deals only with public employee unions, Indiana's so-called "Right -to-Work"

bill (RTW),

would effectively strip all private sector unions of their

collective bargaining power. Contracts or agreements preventing employers from

hiring non-union workers would be rendered illegal; requiring union membership

as a condition of employment would become a Class A misdemeanor.

[For a NUVO's cover story about Right-to-Work, click here.]

Democrats had already indicated they were willing to disrupt

the process over RTW on the first day of session in early January. But the

decisive moment came when Republicans unexpectedly called a House committee

hearing on the controversial bill for Monday, Feb. 22, despite the

prognostications of statehouse insiders and public statements by Governor Mitch

Daniels that the bill was too divisive.

It was little surprise, then, when 37 House Democrats walked

out after Republican committee members approved the bill, amid throngs of

protestors who packed the statehouse. House rules say a bill must be introduced

to the full House within 24 hours of passing committee to receive a vote; the

Democratic walkout prevents the two-thirds House attendance needed for a quorum

to accept new legislation, effectively killing the bill for now, along with

several others.

Since then, House leaders have found themselves at an

impasse, as Democrats remain out of state, and Republicans continue to dig in.

'List of concerns'

Last Tuesday, around the time most House Democrats were

leaving the state to hunker down in a roadside hotel in Urbana, Ill., Democrats

issued a series of what seemed, at the time, like a list of demands.

"We will remain here until we get assurances from the

governor and House Speaker Brian Bosma (R-Indianapolis) that these bills will

not be called down in the House at any time this session," the statement read.

The statement listed 11 specific problem bills, including

the state budget and RTW – all of them pertaining to labor or education.

They included:

HB 1002: Provides for charter school expansion.

HB 1003: Allows a family of four making up to about $81,500

a year to receive tax dollars, or vouchers, for private school tuition.

HB 1479: Allows the state to take over poorly performing

schools and turn them over to for-profit "special management teams" for

rehabilitation, including at parents' request.

HB 1203: Precludes unions' right to organize by way of a

majority sign-up — or, a "card-check."

HB 1585: Enshrines in state law a ban on collective

bargaining among public employees.

HB 1538: Prevents communities from deciding what wages are

appropriate for their area — also known as the "prevailing wage."

As of Monday afternoon, Bauer said in a conference call from

Urbana that Democrats had no plans to return under current conditions. But his

tone had softened since the initial walkout.

Bauer insisted, as he had for several days, that the list

was not a set of demands but "a list of concerns." He would not offer any

concrete terms for a Democratic return, nor commitments on how long they were

willing to hold out.

But, he clarified, there were at least five or so bills

Democrats strongly felt needed "adjustment," in any negotiations.

"I wouldn't weaken (those changes) to the point that it

doesn't matter what the adjustments are," he said. "They would have to take

away some of the pain, some of the great loss that they cause."

Democrats were willing to discuss all these points with

Republicans if Republicans agreed to negotiate, Bauer said. "I'm willing to

negotiate anytime, anywhere."

In a press conference later that day, it was clear that

Leader Bosma wasn't buying it: "If (Bauer) says 'anytime, anywhere," he can be

here tomorrow at 10:30 in my office. That'd be fine. I'd love to have a

conversation with him."

Bosma said Bauer had never indicated to him in phone

conversations that the original demands had softened, as Bauer has emphasized

to the press.

It was obvious the party leaders had made little headway.

"If somebody has a great idea about changing a bill... we will

continue to listen," he said. "But to toss a list in and say 'we're not going

to deal with these 11 issues'... it's just not happening."

Dollars and shoe leather

Democrats and union leaders have portrayed the standoff as

an existential struggle for organized labor in America — a battle between

the corporate ownership class and a dwindling blue-collar class, formerly known

as the middle class.

"What we're

looking at are efforts to weaken opportunities for voice among low- and

middle-income employees, and strengthening opportunities for voice among

corporate America," said Lisa Blomgren Bingham, professor of public service at

Indiana University-Bloomington's School of Public and Environmental Affairs,

referring to legislation like RTW.

Prevailing wisdom, at large and among Democrats inside the

statehouse, says that what's going on in Indiana, Wisconsin and Ohio is more

about politics than trimming budgets — a fight for dollars and shoe

leather that could upset the balance of the two-party political system. In the

wake of the U.S. Supreme Court's Citizens United decision, which granted corporations the rights of citizens to make

campaign donations, they say union-busting legislation could be another nail in

the coffin of the Democratic machine.

As for the unions themselves, recent Indiana history

demonstrates the kind of dramatic effect RTW-style bills can have.

In a recent interview with The New York Times, Daniels claimed that membership in public employee

unions had dropped 90 percent since he effectively stripped them of their

collective bargaining by executive order in 2005.

But where Daniels touted the shift as a victory — "It

was absolutely central to our turnaround here," he said — critics in The

Times article pointed to a host of

hardships created for state employees, including "no raises for state employees

in some years, a weakening of seniority preferences and a far greater freedom

to consolidate state operations or outsource them to private companies."

High noon

After the walkout, Republicans were quick to say they would

drop RTW this session — pushing, instead, for a summer study committee.

Regardless, some accuse Democrats of overreaching by

remaining out of state.

"If (Democrats) are holding the process hostage, I'm not

responding in a positive way," Bosma said. "I'm just not going to reward the

behavior."

Republicans were nearly as quick to create a deadline

extension that will go into effect as soon as there are enough Democrats to

form a quorum, thus extending the life of dozens of bills temporarily killed by

Democrats.

Along with RTW, an additional 22 other bills were also

killed by the end of the day last Tuesday because of the walkout.

By week's end – the official deadline for the full

House to vote on any bill – dozens more active bills were indefinitely

tabled, including the entire state budget. In content, they ranged from contentious

bills that would restrict abortion rights and take away funding from Planned

Parenthood, to less divisive bills concerning storm water management.

As such, Democrats have been criticized for subverting the

democratic process. But Bauer has pointed to a brief walkout by minority

Republicans in 2001, and emphasized that RTW was never the only issue at stake.

It was simply the last straw.

"(Right-to-Work) didn't start all this," he said. "This has

been building from other radical changes, other attacks on workers."

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