Indiana private-school voucher bill faces changes

Boycotting Indiana House Democrats say they'll stay in Illinois until Republicans back off a handful of bills they consider an assault on the middle class — even though some of those sticking points may not have much of a future anyway.

For example, one of the Republican proposals Democrats consider most onerous is a voucher bill that would use taxpayer money to help parents send their children to private school. But House Speaker Brian Bosma, R-Indianapolis, said that bill is likely headed for major changes regardless of the Democrats' ongoing boycott of the House, where Republicans hold a 60-40 majority.

To win solid support for the bill from his own caucus, Bosma said Republicans are considering limiting the number of students who could receive vouchers and may further restrict qualifying income levels so that vouchers are directed to more needy students. Currently the bill includes no cap on the number of students who can participate, and families of four making up to $81,000 a year could receive a scholarship to a private school. That income limit is lower than the original proposal, which would have allowed families of four making more than $100,000 to receive vouchers.

Bosma predicted the voucher bill could pass the House with about 55 votes, but only after amendments are adopted.

"It's going to take some changes," he said.

Nearly 50 amendments have been filed on the voucher bill, most by Democrats, and Bosma said the House would likely adopt some Democratic amendments that make sense. However, adopting amendments — or conducting any House business — requires a quorum, and the Democrats' boycott has prevented that from happening.

House Democrats don't like the voucher bill and want it dropped from the Republican agenda altogether, although they haven't made that an explicit condition of their return from Urbana, Ill., where they have been staying in a hotel since beginning their boycott last Tuesday.

House Minority Leader Patrick Bauer, D-South Bend, said his caucus is "absolutely against vouchers, period." But he didn't rule out a compromise if Republicans would be willing to negotiate.

"That's a tough one," Bauer told reporters Monday by phone from Illinois, saying there is room for compromise.

Bosma has urged Democrats to return and said Monday that he'd talk to Bauer if he came back to Indianapolis. But talking isn't the same as negotiating. Bosma insists that he won't negotiate any items of the agenda outright, and says he won't make any "back room deals" with Bauer to change bills. Bosma said amendments should be dealt with in public on the House floor.

"If they're holding the process hostage, I'm not responding in a positive way to that," Bosma said of Democrats. "I'm just not going to reward the behavior."

Republicans could easily defeat any Democratic amendments, so Bauer said he wants to negotiate with Bosma to get some assurance that changes to "take away some of the pain" of the bills will be accepted before bringing his caucus back to the Statehouse.

"If they would say they'd accept some amendments, it's a whole different story," Bauer said.

The Democrats' boycott has already killed a so-called "right-to-work" bill that would have prohibited union membership from being a condition of employment. Republicans say they won't try to resurrect that proposal. But Bosma said he will not allow the boycott to kill other bills and plans to extend legislative deadlines to keep the other proposals on the House calendar alive as long as necessary.

Democrats, who haven't outlined specifics of changes they want before they'll return, say they simply want Republicans to negotiate.

"The other side has to be willing to talk," said Rep. Scott Pelath, D-Michigan City. "When you begin to talk, then you can begin to identify the specifics that are very important to both sides. But we haven't gotten to that point yet."

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