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House lawmakers settle in to new political reality

November 9, 2014

Tuesday's elections gave House Republicans the most power they've had in four decades and the best chance at seeing their priorities succeed in the upcoming legislative session.

But House Speaker Brian Bosma, R-Indianapolis, stuck to a cautious message as he outlined the goals of his caucus.

"We're going to do the same thing we did with 45 members, with 48 members, with 52 members, with 60 members, with 69 members. And that is tell citizens of the state of Indiana how we think we can move the state forward, put it on paper as we did and then accomplish it," Bosma said a day after the resounding victories.

At the top of that list will be crafting the state's biennial budget, working on a new formula for funding the state's schools and overhauling the Legislature's own ethics rules. Bosma detailed those goals shortly before the election, at a time when Democrats were still hopeful they could break the powerful Republican supermajority. But instead of gaining the three seats they needed, Democrats saw their deficit increase as the Republicans added two seats.

Despite the added strength, Bosma promised that his caucus would "tread lightly" and seek support from Democrats where possible. That's a marked change from recent years, which were punctuated by contentious labor battles, a Democratic walkout and an emotional debate over adding the state's same-sex marriage ban to the constitution.

Some items are certain to draw bipartisan support. Bosma has already said that new ethics rules, brought on by the scandal that prompted Rep. Eric Turner to announce he would resign if re-elected, will be crafted by both parties. And House Minority Leader Scott Pelath, D-Michigan City, agreed that Democrats have had a good working relationship with Republicans on certain issues, including job-training measures.

That's not to say the two will be singing "Kumbaya."

Democrats, Pelath said, will be picking their battles and looking for areas where they can either join with Republicans to win some of their priorities, like mass transit, or block Republican priorities like the marriage ban.

"We're pretty good at we do, in terms of finding out where the Republicans are disagreeing with each other and getting in the middle," Pelath said. "I know how to do that. These guys know how to do that. And that stuff is going to continue, because it is our purpose to provide alternatives, to have them vote on issues that they don't necessarily want to vote on."

One item that is unlikely to be crafted by both parties and will be the overhaul of the school-funding formula Republicans are seeking. Bosma has said that the state's suburban and rural school districts—represented largely by Republicans—need more parity in the funding formula.

Democrats and Republicans have starkly different ideas of what constitutes "fair," but Republicans have more than twice as many members in their ranks as Democrats.

After trading control of the Indiana House for more than two decades, Republicans now have a firm hold on the chamber, placing Indiana in line with a broader trend throughout the country toward increasing one-party control of state government.

After the Tea Party wave of 2010, much of the national focus was on Republicans' resounding taking of the U.S. House. But almost more dramatic was the wave of Republican victories in the nation's statehouses. Controlling the state legislatures gave the party broad power in redrawing legislative maps that helped cement those gains.

In the past four years, Indiana Republicans have gone from being on the short end of a 52-48 split to gaining a 60-40 advantage in the 2010 elections and building their first supermajority in decades. Now they've walked away from the 2014 elections with a stunning 69-31 edge.

Treading lightly is one way for Republicans to preserve that advantage. But don't expect Democrats to roll over. They're already looking for ways to chip away at that majority in the 2016 elections.

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