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Battle over right-to-work bill derails legislative session

December 24, 2011
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Advancement of right-to-work legislation during this year’s legislative session caused Indiana House Democrats to flee to Urbana, Ill., where they remained for 36 days in what became the longest walkout in Indiana history.

A House committee’s passage of the right-to-work bill, which bars companies from requiring union membership as a condition of employment, sparked the Feb. 22 exodus by the Democratic caucus. That halted work in the House because there were not enough members present to form a quorum.

When Republicans who control the House removed the right-to-work bill from the docket two days later, Democrats remained in Illinois and added more demands to the list of legislative items they wanted killed in exchange for their return. That list included 11 bills related to labor, education reform and the state budget.

Weeks of protests from union members ensued while House Republicans and Democrats tried to negotiate a compromise to bring the Democrats back from Illinois. When they failed to reach agreement after a few weeks of talks, Republican leaders increased fines on Democrats from $250 per day to $350 per day and granted authority to collect them from the lawmakers’ paychecks. Meanwhile, work in the Indiana Senate continued.

Democrats returned March 28. They came back partly because Republicans altered several bills. For example, they scaled back a bill authorizing tax-funded vouchers for lower-income students to attend private schools.

After Democrats returned, the session became a scramble to get bills passed on a state budget, new legislative maps and education in a month. Republicans kept intact fines of more than $100,000 for 39 of the 40 Democrats who participated in the walkout.

Republicans also took steps to prevent a similar extended walkout from happening in the future. They inserted an anti-bolting law into the state budget that allows constituents to seek civil penalties of up to $1,000 per day against lawmakers who are absent from the Statehouse. Those would be imposed in addition to daily fines from the House.

Right-to-work promises to spark another big battle in the upcoming session of the General Assembly. Gov. Mitch Daniels and GOP leaders say it is one of their top legislative priorities.•

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