News From Terre Haute, Indiana

Indiana Legislature

January 19, 2012

Indiana House votes for $1,000 fines for missing members

Only 5 democrats present Wednesday

INDIANAPOLIS — When Indiana House Democrats fled the state last year to stall action on a contentious labor bill, Republicans waited two weeks before docking the missing members’ expense checks.

This time around, they’re not so patient.

On Wednesday, after all but five House Democrats went AWOL for the sixth time in three weeks,   Republicans voted to hit each of the missing members with a $1,000-a-day fine.

That’s four times the initial fine that House Democrats faced last year during their five-week walkout.

But it matches the penalty carried by an anti-bolting law – prompted by last year’s walkout – that had yet to kick into effect Wednesday.

House Democrat leaders vowed to go to court to halt the new fines, which arise from a bitter battle over a  right-to-work bill that would outlaw mandatory union dues for private-sector workers.

A pending court case challenges the state’s ability to seize fines from lawmakers’ paychecks.

The fines, if they do stick, could add up fast. Indiana legislators earn a base salary of $22,000 a year plus a weekly per diem expense check of just over $1,000.

Not all House Democrats face the fines. Five House Democrats have broken with their ranks and have almost consistently showed up on the House floor for the session.

They include Rep. Dale Grubb from Covington, who was pushed out his role as a Democrat caucus leader when he sought to negotiate a compromise with the GOP-backers of the right-to-work bill.

Grubb likened his decision to show up for Wednesday’s quorum call to his childhood growing up on a pig farm.

“It’s comes from a sense of duty,” Grubb said. “It’s like when the sows are farrowing at 2:30 a.m. on a February morning when it was 11 degrees outside. It’s your job to be out there with them.”  

Like Grubb, Democrat Rep. Steve Stemler of Jeffersonville said he opposes the right-to-work bill, but can’t support the boycott.

“We were expected to be here by 9 a.m. this morning,” Stemler said Wednesday. “And it’s my responsibility to be here.”

Joining him on the House floor Wednesday were Democrat Reps. Peggy Welch of Bloomington, Dave Cheatham of North Vernon and Ed Delaney of Indianapolis.

Delaney said the stalemate and the resulting fines were  “caused by a bipartisan failure of leadership.”

Delaney blamed Minority Leader Patrick Bauer for failing to come up with a reasoned response to Bosma’s insistence that the right-to-work bill be the No. 1 legislative priority.

“It’s been all about games …,” Delaney said. “It shows the weakness of our legislature as an institution.”

But House Democrats who decided to stay out blame the Republicans who control the Statehouse.

Rep. Terri Austin of Anderson said GOP leaders “time and time again” have tried to silence the minority and shut down public debate on the right-to-work bill.

“This issue deserves the highest level of transparency, not shoved through the legislative process to demonstrate political power,” Austin said.    

The fines were imposed under long-existing House rules that allow the House Speaker to levy penalties on members who intentionally fail to show up.  

After House Democrats walked out last year and camped out in Illinois for five weeks to kill several bills, including a right-to-work bill, they were fined $250 a day.

The fine went up to $350 day in the third week of the walkout.

They ended up paying $120,000 in fines, with money taken out of their weekly expense checks.

After the walkout, the GOP-controlled legislature passed an anti-bolting law that imposes $1,000-a-day fines for lawmakers who intentionally stay out for three days in a row.

Maureen Hayden is the Indiana Statehouse bureau chief for CNHI, the parent company of the Tribune-Star. She can be reached at maureen.hayden@indianamediagroup.com.

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