Following five weeks in a chain hotel in Illinois, House Democrats marched back into the Statehouse—literally—on March 28, escorted by union leaders along Capitol Street and up the east steps in an event made for media.
Almost surrealistically, work on bills that had languished in limbo on second reading picked up immediately where they left off in February, with an amazing—and encouraging—dearth of political proselytizing.
Both parties had declared victory earlier in the day, with Democrats crowing about derailing the dangerous radical Republican agenda, and Republicans reminding Hoosiers that Democrats hadn’t accomplished anything beyond what they would have otherwise won by sticking around and negotiating.
The specifics ensure that right-to-work legislation is off the table, something Democrats had been told weeks ago by House Speaker Brian Bosma, R-Indianapolis; Senate President Pro Tem David Long, R-Fort Wayne; and Republican Gov. Mitch Daniels. Preserving collective bargaining rights for workers was ostensibly the principal reason they left town, but their “anti-agenda agenda” quickly expanded.
The rest of what was accomplished may prove a pyrrhic victory for Democrats.
They are assured that the permanent ban on public employee bargaining and what Democrats refer to as enabling legislation for the private takeover of public schools will not be considered in the House. But those matters, if not right to work, could reappear in Senate bills.
So, too, is the case with a House-negotiated limit on private school vouchers.
So who wins?
That question won’t be answered until you see results of the 2012 elections. That contest is already engaged, even before you see new maps that will undoubtedly not be as favorable to Democrats as the past two decennially drawn district delineations have been.
The governor’s Aiming Higher political action committee began broadcasting spots targeting Democrats on education issues mere hours after their return from self-imposed exile. You can also count on those pictures on the Statehouse steps of House Democratic Leader Pat Bauer, D-South Bend, and AFL-CIO chief Nancy Guyott locking hands in a victory salute gracing campaign materials for both Republicans and Democrats in 2012, albeit for different reasons.
Democrats will continue to portray their principled absence as the sole way to educate Hoosiers about the GOP assault on public education and the working middle class. Republicans will keep reminding voters that they showed up for the work they were elected to do, and that their efforts to improve education and benefit all Hoosiers was the proper way to proceed.
Leaving all the politics behind, we have just about one month (until April 29) to finish the work of this session. Nothing has to die due to the walkout and, as you recall, Senate maneuvering was already under way to keep measures alive when Democrats decided to come back.
Members who remember languid legislative life in the 1980s often complained in the next two decades about all the special sessions in the 1990s, then griped about how the so-called “short” sessions in odd-numbered years had effectively transformed into “long” sessions crammed into six to eight fewer weeks.
Just as in 2009, the budget bill would seem to be as unencumbered as it has ever been. Lack of money has that effect. Besides, after hearings, only four to six legislators really are involved in the budget-making details, and the rank-and-file must bide its time in the soundproof isolation booth off-stage until the final days.
After Democrats returned, work proceeded at a frenzied pace, but with extremely high-level and extensive policy debate on such emotional issues as school choice and vouchers, abortion restrictions and labor concerns. While some 400 amendments were proposed, only about 25 percent of those actually were heard (which is not an unusual departure from legislative practice). Yet the action closed with no one feeling shortchanged.
There will undoubtedly be a number of new partisan clashes arising before the session ends—there always are. And remember that draft legislative district lines have yet to be unveiled. But the work can be finished, both sides can declare victory, and we can turn our attention to important things like the Indianapolis 2012 Super Bowl. Oh, wait—there’s an NFL player lockout. Sound familiar?•
Feigenbaum publishes Indiana Legislative Insight. His column appears weekly while the Indiana General Assembly is in session. He can be reached at firstname.lastname@example.org.