Opinion and Statehouse Dispatch

FEIGENBAUM: Democrats' end game difficult to decipher

January 28, 2012

If you’re trying to understand just what’s happening at a given point in the Indiana General Assembly, it’s helpful to bear in mind that it’s all about the end game.

While the end game sought by House Democrats was elusive as they tried to halt the right-to-work bill advocated by all but a handful of House Republicans, the Jan. 25 passage of the legislation in the House doesn’t necessarily offer new certainty.

Indeed, some Democrats believe the atmosphere is even more poisoned now that the bill has passed the House and faces a clear path to the governor’s desk for signature.

With right-to-work passing, you can remove totally blocking its enactment from the Democratic checklist.

Next on their agenda may be educating the public about their version of the facts so that voters throw the Republican rascals out of office in November (although more than a dozen House and Senate Republicans voted with Democrats on the issue).

They could throw their hopes behind labor-funded broadcast spots leading up to a right-to-work referendum. But whether organized labor would pour in the same amount of time, effort, focus and cash after right-to-work already has been implemented is questionable. And Hoosier voters still seem a tad uncomfortable with Democratic tactics, particularly as Republicans incessantly flogged them publicly for failing to show up for work.

That’s an easy, understandable message to communicate to Hoosiers of all stripes.

Can the Democrats respond with complaints about the process?

They had depleted all the sharp objects in their tool box of legislative legerdemain (a creative attempt to derail the measure on second reading crashed on Jan. 24) by the time they felt resigned to show up for the third reading.

Along the way, Republicans, led by House Speaker Brian Bosma, R-Indianapolis, deployed a few tricks of their own.

Bosma has been playing “good-cop, bad-cop” as he deems appropriate. As good cop, he agreed with Democrats that a six-minute House Committee on Employment, Labor and Pensions meeting offered poor political and policy optics when the panel moved the right-to-work measure to the floor without amendment or public testimony.

But on Jan. 24, he played bad cop, allowing only a six-second delay within which Democrats could continue to offer right-to-work amendments before shutting down debate.

Democrats looked unprepared for a strategy after their statewide referendum amendment failed. While six seconds is, as Bosma pointed out, effectively a legislative eternity at the podium, Rep. John Bartlett, D-Indianapolis, expected more time to ready the next amendment. If Bosma had felt gracious, he could have held the gavel high for a few seconds longer—particularly given that virtually any amendment would be decided on what would likely be a GOP-favoring party-line vote.

But Republicans won the election, and elections have consequences. General Assembly Republicans, stung by the House Democratic walkout, implemented a rubric of fines last year to prevent similar work stoppages in the future. With those expensive arrows in his legislative quiver, Bosma could negotiate to any extent he desired—or not at all.

Of course, his patience was tested by baffling Democratic tactics and moving-target demands.

Republicans also readied some carrots from the $320 million in recently “found” corporate tax receipts. A vehicle bill will hike compensation to State Fair stage-rigging collapse victims, a measure with wide popular appeal. Republicans also now propose doubling the current $80 million devoted to full-day kindergarten, fully funding a pet Democratic project appealing to another key constituency: public schoolteachers.

Could Democrats have resisted the temptation to avoid the floor when they could return and boost public education? Could Republicans seek to divide Democrats by forcing them to choose between their biggest blocs of supporters? Were Republicans executing their own transparent end game?

We’ll never really know, because Democrats showed up, participated in a rational—if sometimes emotional—debate Jan. 25, and took their lumps on final right-to-work passage.

Assuming they continue to allow business to be transacted, Democrats are likely to continually remind voters of how majority Republicans need to respect the rights of the minority.

They will also likely paint every issue in right-to-work colors, questioning why a given economic development bill may be needed if this was such a panacea. And they will demand an immediate showing of positive economic returns and greater accountability.

While their tactics may have oft been questionable, they raised key substantive and process issues. Democrats lost the right-to-work battle, but they are still fighting the end-game war.•

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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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