Legislature and Opinion and Statehouse Dispatch

FEIGENBAUM: Right-to-work just one of big stories brewing in '12

January 7, 2012

Ed FeigenbaumHoosiers may never have started a January with the likely litany of top 10 stories of the year lined up quite as transparently as they seem for 2012.

The only real question now seems to be how they will unfold, and what rank order each will assume by the end of December.

Will the biggest story be the rebuilding of the Indianapolis Colts and the Polians/Peyton Manning/Andrew Luck saga, the resurgence of a young Indiana Pacers team composed of good corporate citizens, Indiana University’s displacing the Butler Bulldogs in the hearts of basketball tournament fans, the debut and performance of a new locally assembled IndyCar chassis dedicated to an Indianapolis 500 champion’s memory, or next month’s Super Bowl? Certainly, sports-business stories will dominate the landscape this year.

Yet, a few other narratives will resonate loudly across the amber waves of grain.

Indiana will host a fascinating Republican primary election in May, and presumably as compelling a general election. The state will anoint a new Indiana Supreme Court chief justice after a generation, and a new Purdue University president after five years. Education issues remain on the front-burner with vouchers and charter schools expanding, and private takeovers of under-performing public schools beginning.

Overarching this: the fate of the national and state economy and the employment picture throughout Indiana.

Then there will be the 2012 session of the Indiana General Assembly, with the hot-button issue of right-to-work. It also will be interesting to watch the fate of the $320 million in “found” corporate tax collection revenue, the central Indiana mass transit plan, and the statewide smoking ban. Assorted other measures also threaten to draw legislative attention from bigger issues—such as regulating performances of the national anthem at school events, alcohol-sales changes, or drug-testing certain beneficiaries of state assistance programs.

Barring a major political scandal or natural disaster, right-to-work (and its wake) will likely be the buzz this time next year. The only question remaining: how productive the session will be and where it will rank in the rubric.

Of course, one of the top stories of 2011 that you saw reprised in the endless year-end retrospectives was the walkout by the House Democratic caucus over right-to-work. Republican legislative leaders from both the House and Senate have labeled it their top priority for 2012, and Republican Gov. Mitch Daniels in December added his strong endorsement for the concept.

Daniels also took to the broadcast airwaves with a spot for “MoreIndianaJobs.com,” which featured the governor emphasizing the importance of right-to-work to Indiana’s economy.

Those ads are not going unchallenged, as the Indiana State AFL-CIO airs a series of 30-second television and 60-second radio spots in areas where recent polling has shown constituents oppose the measure. Another radio spot from the pipefitters reiterates the governor’s praise for Indiana’s strong national standing in corporate relocations and jobs, and suggests right-to-work would promote “more government intervention” and “paralyze” the state over a “divisive” issue contrived by “Washington lobbyists determined to undermine Hoosier values.”

As the rhetoric reverberates in Hoosier ears, both sides clearly understand the stakes are high. Forty-eight percent are undecided on the issue, according to the 2011 Hoosier Poll conducted for Ball State University’s Bowen Center. Both sides also are fighting to mobilize the zealots on both extremes of the proposal. With each end of the spectrum in force on this polarizing issue, middle ground will be hard to find.

Throw in the controversial decision by state public and building safety administrators to cap the number of people allowed in the Statehouse at any one time and warnings about caltrop-like tire spikes being found in government center parking lots used by lawmakers, and the flames are fueled even before the session opens.

While there is no middle ground on this issue, there are some compromise positions floating about aimed at keeping all Republicans (up to 10 House Republicans could defect) on board and Democrats in their seats. There is talk of a Northeast Indiana pilot test, exempting public projects, and sparing the building trades from inclusion. But the more the rhetoric heats up, the more talk of any concessions cools down.

As of now, right-to-work stands to dominate the session. We don’t know whether it will be enacted or obliterate the session. But it will certainly rank atop 2012 stories—until Peyton and the Polian-free Colts run the table through December (following the Pacers’ strong playoff performance)!•

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Feigenbaum publishes Indiana Legislative Insight. His column appears weekly when the General Assembly is in session. He can be reached at edf@ingrouponline.com.

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