Republicans who control the Indiana General Assembly moved forward without the boycotting House Democrats on Monday, with senators discussing a proposal for a new state budget and GOP House leaders scheduling informal hearings of their own.
House Speaker Brian Bosma, R-Indianapolis, directed Republican committee chairmen to hold meetings starting this week to discuss Senate bills, even though no official action or votes can be taken until Democrats return and provide the quorum required by the state constitution to conduct business.
Bosma said he's done directing attention to out-of-state Democrats, most of whom have been holed up in a hotel in Urbana, Ill., since Feb. 22 in an effort to derail bills they consider an attack on labor unions and public education.
"We're turning our attention to legislation now," Bosma said after unsuccessfully trying to convene the House as the boycott enters its fifth week. "We can't really cater to the desires of a few folks too much longer. We spent four weeks doing that without success. We're prepared to move on."
Two House committee meetings already have been scheduled for Tuesday and, like all House committee meetings, will be broadcast online. Rep. Scott Pelath, D-Michigan City, said Democrats are carefully monitoring Statehouse events from Illinois. He said Republicans can do what they want, but noted that no votes could be taken until Democrats return.
"It's too bad we find ourselves still at this spot," Pelath said. "But I think if we could just get back to calm, rational negotiations, we can have progress here. We can get back to the normal course of business."
Republicans said last week that they're done negotiating with boycotting Democrats and would start working around them. That process began Monday as the Senate started hearings on the state budget, which is one of the bills caught up in the House impasse.
The Senate Appropriations Committee used as its starting point a version of the budget bill that cleared a House committee because no version had passed the full House before Democrats left. Senators typically make plenty of changes to the budget anyway, so the starting point may not make much difference in the long run.
"In order for us to finish our work and do our constitutional duty we need to start moving in the Senate," said Committee Chairman Sen. Luke Kenley, R-Noblesville.
Rep. William Crawford, D-Indianapolis, was at the Statehouse on Monday to attend the meeting and told the committee his fellow boycotting Democrats were disheartened by the lack of public testimony about the budget while it was in a House committee.
"That is the main concern we have about the way the bill evolved in the Indiana House of Representatives," Crawford said. "There is going to be some harm done to school corporations in the state. We need to look at ways that we can mitigate that and have public input."
Republicans say the current version of the $28 billion, two-year state budget would hold most spending flat while avoiding tax increases. It would keep overall education spending steady, but include changes to the distribution formula that will hurt some urban and rural schools and help some suburban schools.
Sen. Earline Rogers, D-Gary, said the funding formula would greatly harm some districts and urged Republicans to take a second look at the way the money is divided.
"I don't know what we're going to do in Gary," Rogers said.
Darrel Bobe, the superintendent of North Knox School Corporation in southern Indiana, told lawmakers that his district would have to make more cuts and increase class sizes under the proposed budget, but another nearby district wouldn't have to make such drastic changes. He said the system has flaws with consequences that effect children.
"These are real-life situations," he said.
The Senate committee also heard from social services advocates and planned to continue listening to testimony at hearings all this week.
Also Monday, political parties tried new tactics to drive home their points of view about the ongoing boycott.
The state Republican Party launched a new website — www.indemsgps.com — to track House Democrats. It shows a map with braying donkeys marking sites where House Democrats have been spotted, both in Illinois and in Indiana as they return for town hall meetings or other events.
The national Democratic Legislative Campaign Committee, meanwhile, launched a new television ad running in the Indianapolis market. The commercial attacks Gov. Mitch Daniels and fellow Republican for wanting to "kill collective bargaining" and "decimate public schools" and says Democrats are standing up for the middle class.