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State commerce chief backs right-to-work law

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Indiana lawmakers debated right to work legislation Tuesday that sparked a five-week walkout by House Democrats earlier this year and could set a contentious tone when lawmakers reconvene in January.

Commerce Secretary Mitch Roob opened a daylong hearing, saying that he supported right to work legislation because it makes it easier to bring manufacturing jobs to Indiana. But Roob's boss, Gov. Mitch Daniels, has been circumspect on whether he would support a bill.

"We do miss opportunities because we are not a right to work state," Roob told members of the General Assembly's Interim Study Committee on Employment.

House Democrats left the state for five weeks this year to block Republicans from obtaining a quorum and thereby advancing the measure. The move was similar to that of Wisconsin Senate Democrats who staged a walkout to stifle Republican Gov. Scott Walker's efforts to cut collective bargaining rights.

Shortly after House Democrats returned to Indiana in March, Republicans approved new fines that would attempt to block future walkouts.

The proposal would allow workers to be protected under labor contracts without having to pay union dues. Twenty-two states have approved right to work legislation, most of them more than 50 years ago.

Democrats on the panel blasted the "right to work" proposal Tuesday saying it would depress wages for Hoosier workers and do nothing to bring more jobs to the state.

Although Rep. Kreg Battles, D-Vincennes, said Tuesday it would be "premature" to consider another walkout until the proposal is actually drafted and submitted before lawmakers, who return for the 2012 session in January.

House Republican leaders have not yet said whether they will bring the measure up again for consideration next year.

During the 2011 legislative session Daniels asked lawmakers not work on the measure specifically because it would have sucked the air out of the room for other proposals.

"I wasn't in favor of its consideration of it in this last legislative session, as you all know, because we hadn't had this kind of an open process and airing of all the issues," Daniels said. "So let's have that airing and then we'll have something more definitive to say."

Many businesses will dismiss locating in a state out of hand, if it does not have right to work laws, said Katie Culp, senior vice president of the Indianapolis-based Cassidy Turley, who runs the firm's economic development program. Culp said, however, she could not name any of those specific businesses because of confidential negotiations.

The average annual earnings of workers in states with right to work laws are $1,500 less than what workers make on average in other states, said Gordon Lafer, a professor at University of Oregon Labor Education and Research Center. Consumer spending also decreases greatly in those states, he said.

"That's what it supposed to do. It's supposed to attract out-of-state manufacturers by lowering wages and benefits," Lafer said.

But businesses tend to make decisions on where to locate less on union rules than on more important measures like transportation infrastructure and workforce education, he said.

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