News From Terre Haute, Indiana

Indiana Legislature

February 24, 2011

The walkout: House Democrat says her colleagues were provoked

INDIANAPOLIS — The Indiana House Democrat caucus staged a walkout this week to protest what they see as over-reaching by the Republican majority in the Statehouse. The timing of the walkout was critical because of key procedural deadlines that were looming. Without a quorum of 67 members, the 100-member House couldn’t proceed with its business. There are only 60 Republicans in the House. Meanwhile, Republicans in the Senate hold a “super majority” of 37-13, meaning they can proceed without their Democratic counterparts.

Late last week, legislators were in a hurry to get bills out of committee so that they could be presented to their respective chambers for a full vote. They had to clear several hurdles by this week for those bills to remain alive and move on to the next steps in the legislative process.

Among the deadlines that came and passed this week was one on Tuesday, which involved 23 House bills, including a controversial bill known as “right-to-work.” Democrats have strongly opposed the legislation, which, if passed, would outlaw employers and workers from entering into labor agreements that would make union membership and fees a condition of employment.

Indiana Gov. Mitch Daniels and the Republican leaders in the House and Senate promised to kill the right-to-work bill, in hopes they could get House Democrats to return in time to get remaining bills through the House this week. As of late Wednesday, House Democrats had vowed to stay out indefinitely, citing 11 pieces of legislation, including those on the budget, school vouchers, and collective bargaining rights for teachers to which they object.

Among the three House Democrats who remained behind was Rep. Terri Austin from Anderson. She’s playing a critical procedural role, while her colleagues remain out of site – and out of state – while the conflict continues.

In an interview with the CNHI Statehouse Bureau, Austin offered some insight into what lead to the walkout. 

On her role:

“I’m the ranking minority member on the [House] rules committee, which means that my responsibility is to make sure the rules of the body are followed, in terms of a quorum, in terms of motions, in making making sure any activity taking place, or that is prohibited from taking place, is followed.”

On what lead up to the walkout:

“From my perspective, there’s been some tension building all along. This has become, unfortunately, one of the more partisan sessions. Over 70 percent of all roll call votes have been along party lines. Democrat members’ amendments have been denied, rejected out of hand, or not even been able to be introduced and given consideration in committee... We have felt as if our voice and the voice of the people who elected us has been silenced.”

On House Democrats’ decision to act, after the right-to-work and other contentious bills emerged.

“We had no idea that some of these more volatile issues were going to be on the table. The Governor called for them not to be on the table and we were in agreement...There was no opportunity, or limited opportunity, for the public to actually know and understand what these bills meant.”

On why House Democrats decided they had to act:

“First of all, we believe that this institution works best when it works in a bipartisan fashion and not just because one group or the other has the majority... It became very clear by Monday after lunch that we had to take strong steps to stop what we would call a runaway train.”

On why House Democrats decided to leave the state:

“By Monday evening, it was very clear that folks were very unhappy about how things were going. They got up Tuesday morning, everybody met at 9 o’clock... There was concern that at the time, that either the Governor or [Speaker] Brian [Bosma] might lock us in the Statehouse. So we met offsite and then they decided to leave the state.”

On the impact the walkout had on other legislation:

“The bills are never dead. The committee reports for the hearings that were held – those did not meet the deadline. But the contents are alive until ‘sine die,’ which means is the ‘last day,’ which is April 29. They [legislative leaders] can continue to keep these alive; [they can] find a home in a Senate bill, or find a home in an existing House bill. To suggest that they’re dead isn’t quite accurate.”

On using a walkout as a procedural move:

“You don’t want to ever overuse it, but it’s there and available when folks feel that they have been basically trampled upon.”

On how long the walkout will continue:

“It depends on the willingness of the leaders to communicate.”

Maureen Hayden is statehouse bureau chief for CNHI’s Indiana newspapers. She can be reached at maureen.hayden@indianamediagroup.com.

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