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Indiana House speaker weighing options over boycott

March 15, 2011

The Republican leader of the Indiana House said Tuesday his patience was wearing thin with boycotting Democratic legislators and that different strategies were being considered to end the impasse that has entered its fourth week.

Most Democrats skipped Tuesday's floor session as their walkout continues over Republican-backed proposals that they consider attacks on labor unions and public schools.

Last week, Republicans started imposing $250-a-day fines on the absent Democrats. But since that hasn't prompted any of them to break the boycott, House Speaker Brian Bosma raised the prospect of other action without giving any details.

"All options are on the table and I'm not going to speculate about what our decisions are going to be," Bosma told reporters.

Republicans, who hold a 60-40 House majority, don't have an option like Wisconsin legislators used last week to pass a collective bargaining bill despite a similar Democratic boycott. Indiana's constitution requires two-thirds of members to be present for the House or Senate to conduct business, and Bosma said there was no way around that provision.

Democrats have raised their most pointed objections to proposals allowing state vouchers to help parents send their children to private schools and changing the regulations covering wages and other matters for workers on government construction projects.

Republicans have proposed amendments to those bills that seem to, at least in part, address the concerns raised by Democrats.

Bosma said he told Democratic leader Patrick Bauer on Tuesday that Republican "accommodations aren't going to sit there forever."

Democrats, however, showed no signs of ending the walkout that began Feb. 22 when most of them left for Urbana, Ill.

Rep. Shelli VanDenburgh, D-Crown Point, said she and her fellow Democrats want to return but believe the public needs to learn more about the Republican proposals on education and workers' rights.

"Things were moving very quickly and I don't believe all voters were keeping themselves informed," she said.

The atmosphere surrounding the House chamber has calmed down from the start of the boycott when thousands of union members filled the Statehouse in protests and many Republican legislators spoke on the House floor, often lambasting the absent Democrats.

On Tuesday, a few dozen union protesters in the hallway outside the House cheered "Thank you Democrats" when Bosma announced the absence of a quorum. But the public gallery — previously packed with protesters — was about half filled with people, including several wearing Ivy Tech State College shirts during the school's lobbying day and a couple women with four grade school-aged children.

The only House members besides Bosma to speak from the floor microphones this week were those supporting a resolution honoring the contributions of Indiana National Guard members.

Democrats each day have two boycotting members present for parliamentary reasons, along with Rep. Steve Stemler, D-Jeffersonville, who didn't join the walkout.

This week, Bosma has stopped his previous practices of trying two or three times a day to call the House to order and having a clerk sometimes read each name for roll call.

But Bosma said it has cost more than $300,000 to run the House since the start of the walkout, which he calls "a very expensive tantrum by the Democrats."

Democratic Rep. Gregory Porter of Indianapolis said the boycotters remained resolute in wanting to negotiate changes to the Republican proposals before they return. He said he didn't believe the walkout had reached the point where the Legislature couldn't get its needed work completed by the late April deadline to adjourn.

"If we get the work done by the end of April, it doesn't matter what transpired in January or February," Porter said. "It's what happens at the end — and we have plenty of time to do the business by the end of April."

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