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Daniels eyes right-to-work legislation in final session

November 13, 2011

Indiana Gov. Mitch Daniels has long flirted with "right to work," but it seems he can't decide whether to take it to the big dance — his last session as governor.

Daniels' disdain for public sector unions is no secret. In his first year in office, he stripped collective bargaining rights for public employees via an executive order. He calls government employees the "privileged elite" in his new book. He even lent his support in the national labor battle next door, recording robo-calls in favor of changes pushed by Ohio Gov. John Kasich, which voters overturned last week.

But when it comes to blocking private sector unions and businesses from mandating union membership or dues, via right-to-work legislation next year, he's not ready to take the lead.

"I think it's highly likely from talking to legislators it will be in front of this next General Assembly and it has, as I thought it should, been researched, debated and vetted for a year. And I think they believe it's appropriate now to bring it forward," Daniels said.

The lead will have to come from the General Assembly, he says.

"I want to know exactly what kind of bill they want to move with and what their thoughts are about how to be successful."

When conservative Republicans pushed the issue during the 2011 session, Daniels urged them to hold off, lest it suck all the air out of the room while he tried to push through sweeping education changes that, along with efforts to draft him for a White House run, put a national spotlight on Indiana. They ignored his request, and subsequently House Democrats left the state for five weeks, union workers packed the Statehouse and, for at least a bit, uncertainty reigned.

But with Daniels off the list of presidential contenders, the state's biennial budget approved and no marquee issues arising just yet, right-to-work could be poised to dominate the short 2012 session.

"It is clear to us that the votes are there to pass it. We would like to see it happen in 2012," said Greg Mourad, vice president of the National Right to Work Committee. Mourad and other "right to work" advocates have taken to calling Daniels their "silent supporter" — he's a big fan, but he's not ready to declare his love in public just yet.

Rep. Jerry Torr, R-Carmel, said he's ready to carry the issue in the House, just as he has for the last eight years. The question remains whether leadership will push it through.

House Speaker Brian Bosma won't say whether he's ready to push the issue, but he hinted it may be the next "step" needed to address the state's growing unemployment numbers.

"The most important thing for Hoosiers right now is to address the issue of 266,000 Hoosiers out of work," he said. "Despite all of the cutting-edge initiatives we've enacted in Indiana — and we're recognized around the country as the top business environment in the Midwest, and one of the top in the country — we still have 9 percent unemployment. So we've got to take another step."

At least one precursor has been met. The right-to-work study committee completed a series of exhaustive hearings this summer and issued a fairly sparse, 2,000-word report, last month recommending lawmakers approve the measure. Republicans running the committee approved the recommendation on a strictly party-line vote, while Democrats opposing the measure said they plan to release their own, separate report.

Mitch Roob, then Daniels' economic development chief, told the study committee that right-to-work was needed to bring jobs to the state. Supporters like Sen. Greg Walker, R-Columbus, see that as a signal Daniels is on board with them

Earlier this month, Daniels traveled to the union hub of Kokomo and told The Kokomo Tribune that businesses refuse to consider moving to Indiana because of its labor laws, despite having everything else going for it.

"I always say, 'It's like being the prettiest girl in school and they call off the prom,'" Daniels told the paper. "(You) look so attractive, just not a lot of people dating."

So for now, he showers the issue with praise without deciding whether it's worth at least a twirl at the dance before he leaves office. Call it the Hoosier equivalent of "leading from behind."

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