Opinion and Statehouse Dispatch

FEIGENBAUM: Democrats must assess strategy as right-to-work advances

January 14, 2012

On the evening of the New Hampshire presidential primary, Republican Gov. Mitch Daniels delivered his eighth and final State of the State address to the Indiana General Assembly and Hoosiers at home in the television audience.

But the in-person audience in the Statehouse was larger and more raucous than usual. Hundreds of labor union members crowded the hallowed halls to jeer the governor and House Republicans over their big push to pass a controversial right-to-work bill on an expedited basis.

Finally, about three-quarters of the way through his speech, Daniels issued an audible sigh—as if he knew precisely what he was getting into by raising the issue in this venue—and launched into an impassioned plea for a right-to-work law.

He followed that pitch with a request for civility, and that was largely the tone in the House chamber during the address, even as rumors had flown about audible dissents, visible protests, high-profile walkouts, and every permutation on these themes.

But there were a number of empty seats on the Democratic side of the aisle.

And immediately after the governor’s conclusion, emotions ran high. House Democrats scrambled out of the House chamber before the governor left the rostrum, concerned that after their walkout earlier in the day, House Speaker Brian Bosma, R-Indianapolis, might seize upon their physical presence to execute parliamentary maneuvers.

Concern on the part of Democrats about being railroaded on key policy issues close to their hearts and political constituencies has overarched the entire session to date, and threatens to do so at least until a right-to-work bill has passed both houses and is signed by the governor.

After an unusual joint hearing of the Senate and House committees responsible for labor legislation, the Senate committee advanced the measure to the floor of that chamber with only one Republican dissenting. Sen. Brent Waltz, R-Greenwood, wanted to exempt building trades from the measure, and reserved the right to vote for the overall bill on the floor.

When Democrats, seeking to avoid the new phenomenon of hefty ($1,000 per day) fines for lengthy unexcused absences, returned to the House floor on the afternoon of Jan. 9, that quorum allowed the panel hearing the bill to formally meet the following morning to pass the House version.

Republicans decided to refuse to hear Democratic amendments or allow testimony, ignoring Democratic assertions that the bill heard earlier was (technically) only the Senate bill.

When the meeting concluded after six minutes by sending (the identical) House bill to the House floor on a party-line vote, Democrats opted against appearing for work that afternoon. After all, they reasoned, Republicans had pressured them to show up and participate, but their amendments weren’t even considered.

So what will happen now? There are effectively no plausible scenarios under which Democrats can block a right-to-work measure from reaching the governor’s desk on a relatively timely basis without literally bringing the session to a halt, which would likely be a political disaster for them.

Look for Democrats to continue to oppose the measure, working around the state to educate the populace on right-to-work concerns and seeking to generate enough public opprobrium that Republicans will agree to some marginal concessions.

The larger question now is, what happens after right-to-work (and the Super Bowl high) ultimately passes?

The debate could get even uglier, and poison the well for other legislation going forward. Or Democrats could decide to put the issue behind them for the session, and work earnestly on legislation they can affect before mid-March.

There are many bills related to economic development, government, business and social regulation, and education on which Democrats and Republicans could largely agree and tinker with at the margins to secure passage. That will take an affirmative decision by Democrats to keep their disagreements in the chamber, as the governor sought in his speech, then take their case to voters in the summer and fall.

Will this occur? While after the 2010 election House Democrats would seem to be down to their core, the specter of fines, inevitability of right-to-work passage, and the desire to accomplish some items on their own agenda this session might prove too strong a temptation to keep Demos offstage for two of every three days.•

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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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