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Fear of GOP dominance fuels Indiana Dems' boycott

March 18, 2011

Indiana House Democrats, whose walkout nearly a month ago halted the legislative process, remain in no hurry to return considering they face the prospect of losing on almost every vote — including a redistricting plan that could effectively keep Republicans in power for years.

The end game in Indiana is even less clear than in Wisconsin, where Senate Democrats bolted the state days earlier to block — albeit temporarily — legislation doing away with most public bargaining rights for public workers.

While Wisconsin law requires a quorum to be present to approve financial legislation, Indiana requires it for any legislative business — no matter how minor. And, while Wisconsin's standoff was generally over labor issues, Indian's Democratic leaders have a far longer list of demands.

Badly outnumbered after November's landslide elections, most House Democrats left their duties behind almost four weeks ago for an Urbana, Ill., hotel., effectively shutting down the legislative process.

"I was not elected to sit here and just push a button," said Democratic Rep. Gail Riecken of Evansville.

Republicans sought to use their first big House majority since the early 1980s to go along with their long control of the state Senate in order to push a broad legislative agenda that on some points even exceeded the appetite of GOP Gov. Mitch Daniels.

"I think Democrats stared into the abyss and realized they were going to be on the short end of every piece of legislation," said Robert Dion, a political science professor at the University of Evansville. "No Democratic ideas would be factored in at all, in the end product."

The getaway drive by Indiana Democrats on Feb. 22 came a week after Wisconsin's Democratic senators left for Illinois in their three-week boycott against a law barring most public employees from collective bargaining. Republicans used a parliamentary maneuver to pass the law without them, and the matter now is headed to court.

While Republican House Speaker Brian Bosma argues the absent Democrats are shirking their elected obligations to debate and vote on the House floor, the Democrats say they're representing their constituents in trying to block measures they believe will hurt public schools and damage union workers' rights and incomes.

Indiana Republicans don't have the same options as Wisconsin Republicans did because the state Constitution requires two-thirds of the 100 House members to be present for any legislative business. And the block of 39 boycotters among the 40 Democratic representatives has shown no signs of returning.

The Republican leader of the Indiana Senate calls the Democratic walkout a copycat of the Wisconsin strategy and that it sets a dangerous precedent for state legislatures around the country.

Senate President Pro Tem David Long of Fort Wayne said the House Republicans must remain firm against caving in to demands.

"If the House Democrats continue to stay out, I hope that the outrage is not just in Indiana but nationally," Long said. "Our whole republican process breaks down if people are allowed to get away with what the House Democrats in Indiana are doing right now."

Neither party had held more than 53 seats in the Indiana House since a 50-50 split from the 1996 election, when Democrat Frank O'Bannon won the first of his two terms as governor.

Republicans gained a four-seat majority in the 2004 election as Daniels became the state's first GOP governor in 16 years, helping him push through proposals such as leasing off the Indiana Toll Road to fund state highway projects.

But Daniels was frustrated in four years of dealing with a Democratic-led House and organized a political action committee that spent about $1 million helping more than two dozen Republican legislative candidates on the way to winning a 60-40 majority last fall.

Democratic Rep. Win Moses of Fort Wayne said Republicans were pushing new education- and labor-related changes that were much more aggressive than their campaign agendas. Moses said the boycott was an effort to bring the debate back to the middle.

"This is our only means of reacting to that," he said. "It doesn't happen often and it shouldn't. But there are times when it has to be done."

Democrats also say they're responding to a movement by Republicans across the country to pass legislation that the labor lobby says will hurt the middle class, Democratic leader Patrick Bauer of South Bend pointed to debates over labor legislation in Wisconsin, Ohio and Michigan.

"We have a constitutional right and duty to deny a quorum when we think the majority has become tyrannical or too radical," he said.

Republicans, meanwhile, can't be blamed for feeling they've got a mandate to push an aggressive agenda and honor the electorate's wishes after such a big victory, said Dion, the political scientist.

"It leaves the minority party impotent. They have very few options to express their will," he said. "The majority Republicans are exasperated and are saying, 'Put your hand down so we can punch you in the face.'"

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