Lawmakers see atmosphere shift inside Indiana Statehouse

Republican and Democratic legislators stood and applauded in the Indiana House chamber a couple weeks ago after voting unanimously to support a bill that would create a state council to match up available training programs and job opportunities.

While not a contentious topic, the sight on the House floor was a stark contrast to the past couple years, when bitter fights over Republican efforts for the right-to-work law and private school vouchers led thousands of union protesters to fill the Statehouse halls and sparked a five-week boycott by most House Democrats.

The first half of this year's General Assembly session has been much quieter, at least partly because of election victories in November that gave Republicans a larger House majority, preventing new Democratic walkouts from stopping legislative action.

Leaders of the more-powerful Republican supermajorities in the House and Senate haven't walked in lockstep with new GOP Gov. Mike Pence over tax-and-spending issues and have so far only worked around the edges of some potentially divisive issues that their most conservative backers support.

Pence has largely kept a low profile in the Statehouse during his first seven weeks in office, although he has had private meetings with at least three-quarters of the 150 state senators and representatives. Pence was tepid last week with his praise of the General Assembly, saying he "reasonably satisfied" with progress on his priorities so far this session.

But he sounds more critical when it comes to talking about the House budget plan that didn't include his top campaign issue: a 10-percent cut in the state's personal income tax rate.

"I am still disappointed that the House passed a budget that has significant increases in spending and not one cent of new tax relief for individuals, for working families and for most small businesses," Pence said.

House Democrats tried to force Republicans into a vote on the governor's tax cut plan in one of the relatively few edgy floor confrontations during the legislative session's first two months, but GOP House Speaker Brian Bosma declared the move violated a procedural rule. That cleared the way for the House to later send the budget on to the Senate for more debate leading up to the session's deadline in late April.

Bosma and new House Democratic Leader Scott Pelath of Michigan City — who this session replaced longtime Bosma foil and 2011 boycott leader Rep. Pat Bauer — have often praised each other for working to improve the legislative atmosphere.

Pelath says a more civil tone was needed after "a rough past few years." Bosma says "we have a nice mix right now" of personalities.

Democratic lawmakers, however, still maintain Pence and legislative Republicans are squandering chances to quickly spur job growth. They point to GOP differences over Pence's tax proposals and unwillingness to act on implementing the federal health care overhaul.

"We don't have clear message coming from the Republican majorities and the governor," Pelath said. "We don't have a clear direction for Indiana."

Republican leaders bottled up tea party-backed measures challenging the health care overhaul and other federal laws, and a bill that sought to allow the Lord's Prayer to be recited in schools. They also decided to delay until next year a vote on a proposed state constitutional amendment banning gay marriage, while taking up a proposal to require women seeking the abortion pill to first undergo an ultrasound.

Pelath argues that such issues take the Legislature's focus away from trying to boost the state's economy.

"I don't know what's been accomplished other than stoking the Republican base," he said.

Bosma says he considers this year's legislative session positive and productive so far.

It has certainly been quieter. This year's biggest Statehouse protest came when a few hundred people gathered to call for the state to withdraw from a set of national reading and math school standards.

With some Republican legislators even referring during debates to "Speaker Bauer" — a reference to the South Bend Democrat's years preceding Bosma as the one controlling the House gavel — it has certainly been more civil.

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