Indiana House Democrats who are boycotting the legislature over labor and education bills they oppose will be imposed fines of $250 per day under a decision made by Republicans on Thursday that increased tensions in the political standoff.
Most House Democrats skipped Thursday's floor sessions, extending their stay at an Urbana, Ill., hotel to a 10th day and preventing action on the bills because too few members are present. The fines would start being assessed on Monday and be deducted from the salaries or expense allowances of the absent members.
Republican House Speaker Brian Bosma said he decided to seek the fines because the Democratic boycott had reached "the point of absurdity."
"We've tried every other means other than conceding to a list of demands and this is one of the few items that we have as options," Bosma said.
Similar fines have been imposed — then dropped — during previous House walkouts over the years. But when Democratic Rep. Charlie Brown of Gary mentioned that point during floor discussion of the motion, Bosma turned on his microphone at the speaker's podium and interjected "I wouldn't count on that."
While Bosma later apologized for interrupting Brown, the threatened fines seemed to have already soured Democrats.
Minority Leader Patrick Bauer called the fines "two steps back" from progress toward a resolution after he returned to Indiana for a Statehouse meeting Wednesday with Bosma and other Republican leaders.
"It is a far less penalty than what hundreds of thousands of workers are going to be paying if their bills are passed," Bauer said, referring to the proposed Republican-backed legislation.
Bauer said Democratic legislators planned to remain in Illinois through the weekend and that it was "very doubtful" that they would return on Monday.
"The atmosphere is suddenly as hostile as when we left," he said in a telephone conference with reporters. "We thought there was improvement, but obviously not."
Democrats have been seeking to narrow the scope of a proposed private school voucher program and change or set aside some labor-related bills, including measures that would exempt many government construction projects from the state's prevailing wage law and prohibit local governments from setting a higher minimum wage.
Republicans on Thursday did drop for now the possibility of a formal censure against the absent Democrats, although Bosma said that could be brought up later.
Rep. Jerry Torr, R-Carmel, said he thought it was appropriate for the missing members to have their personal finances affected.
"Every citizen in Indiana is being disenfranchised because without a quorum none of us can conduct the state's business," he said.
Republicans calculate that the absence of the Democrats has cost more than $250,000 in taxpayer money for the salaries and expenses of running the House during the walkout, which Bosma called "a very expensive temper tantrum."
There will be no additional expense to the state, however, if the General Assembly completes its business by late April and no special session is needed.
Democratic Rep. Kreg Battles of Vincennes said threatening fines won't "stop the madness."
"This is just one of a series of decisions that further divides and further alienates the parties rather than bringing them together," he said. "Fining is punitive and it doesn't fix the problem at all."