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Wisconsin redux: Indiana Democrats flee state in protest

In Indiana, Democratic state legislators are balking at the Republicans' entire agenda – not just a single bill, as was the case in Wisconsin. That has made compromise difficult.

State Rep. Jeffrey Espich (R) speaks on a motion in the Indiana House of Representatives to fine unexcused absent members $250 a day on March 3. The motion, which passed, would be the first order of business when a quorum is finally attained, but most House Democrats fled the state and are in Urbana, Ill.

Charlie Nye/The Star/AP/File

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In a replay of the recent political upheaval in Wisconsin, Indiana state government remains at a five-week standstill with the departure of 39 House Democrats who remain holed up in Illinois. In this instance, they are protesting of a Republican agenda they characterize as unfair to the state’s middle class and a threat to future business development.

While walkouts are not uncommon among Indiana state legislators, what makes the current situation unique – and different from the one in Wisconsin – is that Democrats are protesting the entire Republican agenda, not any single bill. As a result, lawmakers don't appear to know where to start to find compromise. In addition, hotter-than-usual rhetoric fueled by a mounting sense of political uncertainty in the Hoosier State is making the situation more volatile.

The standoff, which has no sign of abating on either side, may lead to a government shutdown if the Democrats do not return by April 29, the last day in session and the final opportunity legislators have to approve a state budget, due June 30.

“It looks like it’s going to be a waiting game. And so they will play it out until the bitter end unless there is a backroom deal,” says Brian Vargus, a political scientist at Indiana University-Purdue University in Indianapolis.

Illinois is no stranger to housing renegade Democrats from neighboring states. For three weeks, the state became the safe haven for 14 Senate Democrats from Wisconsin who fled here to prevent their Republican peers from achieving a quorum on a bill that trimmed back union rights of public-sector workers. The self-impose exile ended when Senate Republicans stripped fiscal elements from the bill and passed it without a quorum (though a judge is reviewing whether this process followed state legislative rules).

Trading barbs across the border

Indiana law is written so a quorum is needed for every vote, no matter if it involves spending money or not. That means Indiana Republicans remain powerless until the Democrats return.

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When that happens is anyone’s guess. Democrats yawned in response to Republican threats of censure, hefty fines, and charges they are in dereliction of duty as they run up daily hotel tabs in Urbana, Ill., at the expense of their party.

Worsening the situation is a battle of wills on both sides. House Speaker Brian Bosma (R) continues to say he is not open to compromise and will not adjust or remove any of the proposals the Democrats find objectionable. House minority leader Patrick Bauer refuses to return to Indianapolis, the state capital, unless he senses the Republican leadership is willing to go beyond just listening to actually negotiate.

The intensity of the debate is indicative of the unpredictable election results of the past few years, where state power has yanked back and forth between both parties, leaving neither of them assured of incumbency each election cycle, says Marjorie Hershey, a political scientist at Indiana University in Bloomington.

“Both parties nationally have perceived they may have a very limited time to get their agenda enacted, and they better hit the top of the agenda real fast before they lose the control they’ve got,” Professor Hershey says.

Unlike Wisconsin, where Republican Gov. Scott Walker was the public face of the battle between both parties, Indiana Gov. Mitch Daniels (R) has more or less removed himself from the debate. He is serving his second and final term – a lame duck status that some say he is using to prepare for a presidential run in 2012.

How the standoff began

The House standoff started Feb. 21 when Democrats walked out after a House committee passed a right-to-work bill, written to bar companies and unions from negotiating contracts that require nonmembers to pay membership fees for representation. The bill was later removed by Republicans to lure Democrats to return to the state.

They didn’t return. Soon after, Democrats took issue with several other bills on the docket, including one that affected union jobs on public construction projects and another that used taxpayer money to fund charter school vouchers.

Protesting an entire agenda, instead of a single bill, is what makes “negotiating more difficult to begin with,” says Andrew Downs, director of the Mike Downs Center on Indiana Politics at Indiana University-Purdue University in Indianapolis.

“I don’t think you could have gotten the Democrats to walk out of the statehouse if you tried to fix one or two issues on the basis of that walkout. But what happened was, one legislator was upset about this piece of legislation, another one was upset about another. I would not be surprised if [Indiana Democrats] are having trouble in Illinois figuring out what they see as a victory or what they are willing to sacrifice,” Mr. Downs says.

Not having a single issue to rally around also makes it difficult for Democrats to explain to the public why they are not in session. This becomes especially true this month when the standoff recedes from the headlines in favor of – what else in Indiana? – the NCAA March Madness college basketball tournament.

“The public doesn’t understand what’s going on, they really don’t, and the Democrats have had trouble articulating their message because the devil is in the details – and it really is in this case. The longer this goes on, the less it seems to be bothering anybody than those attached to either end of the party spectrum,” says Professor Vargus. “In March, Indiana is all about basketball.”


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