Indiana’s House Democrats aren’t admitting it, but by all appearances the minority party caucus followed the example of Wisconsin’s Senate Democrats and walked out of the Indiana General Assembly Tuesday.
Three times Tuesday, the House Democrats ignored House Speaker Brian Bosma’s call to return to the House floor.
Shortly after 4 p.m., Bosma asked State Rep. Teri Austin, D-Anderson, where the rest of her caucus was.
“You don’t know? Excellent,” Bosma said sarcastically.
The walkout triggered political recriminations across the state, as Republicans called it a dereliction of duty, and Democrats blamed the Republican majority.
The three Democrats remaining on the floor all said the other Democrat members were meeting in caucus to review various amendments. Late Tuesday, party officials released a statement that House Democrats have relocated to Urbana, Ill., saying “the governor still has the ability to compel our attendance.”
“By staying here, we will be giving the people of Indiana a chance to find out more about this radical agenda and speak out against it,” the statement reads.
The Democrats walked out over right-to-work legislation, a measure that would have ended closed-shop arrangements between unions and employers.
Advocates for right-to-work say the legislation would bring jobs to Indiana.
Union members, who have protested by the thousands for the past two days at the Indiana Statehouse, say the measure is a union-busting tactic.
“Things that don’t get a committee report [read into the record] today are effectively dead,” State Rep. Mike Karickhoff, R-Kokomo, said just before noon Tuesday. “The state’s business needs to be done.”
Democrats made it clear they were drawing a line in the sand over right-to-work from the first day of the legislative session, when they tried to engineer an unprecedented first-day vote on two right-to-work bills.
Karickhoff said the Democrats first failed to return from caucus Monday evening, and said Republicans decided to try and reconvene at 10 a.m. Tuesday.
When the Democrats still didn’t come to the House floor at 10 a.m., Bosma recessed the chamber and said they would try again at noon. The Democrats, apart from the two members left behind for procedural purposes, again declined to take the floor.
The Democrats have enough members (40) to prevent a quorum in the House, but not in the Senate. The House needs 67 members to conduct business.
“It’s about right-to-work,” Karickhoff said. “I don’t think it’s over school vouchers. If they were going to walk out on education issues, they would have walked out on the charter schools bill. But some of the Democrat caucus members approve of charters.”
Karickhoff said the right-to-work bill, which emerged from committee on a party-line, 8-5 vote Monday, would exempt trade unions — such as steelworkers, construction trades, electrical workers, etc. — from the proposed law.
Late Tuesday, Indiana Gov. Mitch Daniels said he suspected the Democrats will return later this week, once the right-to-work bill is dead. He declined to order state troopers to track down the missing legislators.
Democrats said Tuesday the Republican majority left them no choice but to walk out, and said they’d warned the GOP what would happen if right-to-work bills were pushed ahead.
On the first day of the legislative session, House Minority Leader Pat Bauer, D-South Bend, noted Indiana Gov. Mitch Daniels had openly expressed concerns the right-to-work bills could bog down the legislative session.
“We’ve been in a recession. We don’t need lower wages, and lower health care, and to cause more workplace deaths, and that’s why we're voting on it,” Bauer said of the January effort to call a vote on the right-to-work bills.
Republicans excoriated the Democrats, saying the walkout had cheated the voters who elected the Legislature, and expected it to produce jobs.
“The people of Indiana elected their representatives to introduce, debate and vote on legislation, not hide from their duties,” Indiana Republican Party Chairman Eric Holcomb said. “Speaker Bosma started the session with a bipartisan olive branch, only to see the favor returned by Democrats skirting the duties they were elected to do. If they didn't want to do their job they shouldn't have run for office in the first place.”
In January, State Rep. Ed Delaney, D-Indianapolis, called right-to-work an “issue from the 1950s,” and said Republican efforts to head off a vote on the bills didn’t square with Bosma’s calls for more openness and transparency in the legislative process.
“We’ve heard all about the new transparency, yet we’re in day one of the real part of the session and already we’re dodging where we stand on these issues,” Delaney said.
After the opening day salvo, Bosma acknowledged there could be battles ahead.
“I think it means we're not going to have the cooperation of the Democrat leadership to move forward in a bipartisan fashion,” Bosma said at a press conference just after the opening day fireworks. “We’ll work with those Democrats who are willing, and we’ll work around those that aren’t.”
• Scott Smith is a Kokomo Tribune staff writer. He may be reached at 765-454-8569 or via e-mail at scott.smith@ kokomotribune.com