FEIGENBAUM: Freshmen legislators' green is showing

February 26, 2011

Action: House of Representatives Democrats walked out Tuesday to prevent the adoption of a House committee report paving the way for a far-reaching (but not absolute) right-to-work measure—added to the committee calendar at effectively the last minute of the last possible day.

Reaction: Republican Gov. Mitch Daniels called the Statehouse media into his office, not to castigate or condemn House Democrats’ actions, but rather to calmly and cautiously cajole them back to work.

He would not sic the Indiana State Police on wayward Democrats—some of whom were then-rumored to be seeking sanctuary in Illinois and Kentucky, states overseen by Democratic governors—and just appealed to their consciences to conduct business.

Some national Republicans looking for red-meat political rhetoric from Daniels as they begin to choose sides in the 2012 Republican presidential sweepstakes may have been disappointed in that, but they were probably even more disappointed in his refusal to stand on principle in favor of a right-to-work law.

Instead, echoing his recent Conservative Political Action Conference speech in which he suggested that “Purity in martyrdom is for suicide bombers,” Daniels reminded reporters of his earlier fears that waving the right-to-work flag in front of Democrats during this session would likely prove counterproductive, and that it should best be vetted in front of the public in a campaign context where the issue was a principal campaign plank on both sides of the partisan political ledger.

However, despite the strong Republican majorities in both chambers of the General Assembly, the governor has not always found strict adherence to his legislative and fiscal preferences.

While some of the major so-called “wedge” issues—changes in abortion policy and definitions of when life begins, a same-sex marriage ban constitutional amendment and charter-school expansion—were passed by one or both chambers over surprisingly little Democratic opposition, and even school vouchers didn’t seem as offensive to the legislative minority as they had hinted, there was a firewall.

Perhaps lulled into a belief that the lack of a Democratic firestorm on the other controversial issues meant Dems were resigned to their fate, or simply holding back their heavy artillery for the redistricting or budget bills, Republicans waited until late in the game to call for a right-to-work hearing, and pushed it through after what can be characterized as unusually brief testimony for such a controversial matter.

While Monday’s floor proceedings were conducted professionally with occasional flashes of good humor, Democrats apparently decided that the Right-to-Work principle was a core principle, and a strong display at the Statehouse of human bumper stickers with the union label—“Wisconsin lite”—offered them further encouragement.

As the session was unfolding in January, Assistant House Democratic Leader Scott Pelath, D–Michigan City, hinted that his colleagues—on both sides of the aisle—would truly do battle on “what they value most.” Tuesday night, Democrats said they had grievances with almost one dozen bills on a “radical” Republican “reform” agenda, and not just one area. Instead of “anti-child and anti-worker” measures, they wanted more public school aid and income-boosting initiatives.

When the dust eventually settles, expect the freshman bloc to listen more closely to their more-seasoned legislative and executive branch leaders and avoid overreaching. They had already racked up an impressive record of success as the first half of the session was preparing to draw to a quiet close. An Unemployment Insurance Trust Fund fix and and extension of the use of vote centers were approved by both chambers. Major school reforms—and significant funding changes—were on their way through, together with abortion restrictions, easing of gun-control laws, corporate tax cuts, and the marriage amendment. You don’t have to back the bills to be impressed by the activity.

Republicans were likely to add to that litany a budget that improved upon the governor’s submission, and new legislative maps favoring their party as a whole.

But the “new kids in the bloc” failed to heed their elders, and got a bit greedy too quickly, goading Democrats into the only recourse open to them. With Democrats in Ohio and Wisconsin acting largely the same way as their Hoosier compatriots (over less substance), Indiana Democrats aren’t as chastened as freshmen Republicans hoped.

This is a key lesson for the freshmen going forward.•


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


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