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December 21, 2012

House Speaker may face divisions within his own party

INDIANAPOLIS — Two years ago, just as he was reclaiming the title of Speaker of the Indiana House, Republican state lawmaker Brian Bosma pledged to restore some civility to a legislative chamber best known as a haven for crass power politics and nasty diatribe.

It’s been a tough pledge to keep, especially during two rancorous sessions that saw Democratic legislators storm out of the Statehouse and union protesters storm in.

The big issues that prompted that rancor – including the so-called “right to work” legislation bitterly opposed by labor and the nearly $1 billion deficit that forced cuts to education and public services – are in the past.

But Bosma says his pledge remains in force as the Indiana General Assembly prepares to take on some contentious social and fiscal issues when it convenes in January.

“My constant call to all our members, on every issue, is to be civil,” the Indianapolis lawmaker said, during an interview with the CNHI Statehouse bureau.

“Words matter,” he continued. “We ought to be able to conduct high-level debates on emotional issues in a civil fashion…Our democracy depends on it.”

Bosma’s repeated call for political civility in the Statehouse comes at a time when he doesn’t appear to need it: The November election gave Republicans a super-majority control over both the state House and Senate.

That means GOP lawmakers could push through any piece of legislation without a single Democrat showing up to vote, then send it on to Republican Gov.-elect Mike Pence for his signature.

But Bosma, a 36-year veteran of the House who first served as Speaker from 2004 to 2006, acknowledges that Republicans aren’t in lock-step with each other on a range of issues.

That includes what to do with the state’s current $2 billion surplus. Pence made a campaign promise to give a big chunk of that back to taxpayers in the form of a permanent cut in the individual income tax rate.

Bosma, along with the top Senate Republican, state Sen. David Long of Fort Wayne, has repeatedly and publicly questioned that idea as fiscally unrealistic over the long term.

“I pledged I would keep him in bounds,” Bosma said of a promise he said he made to Pence during the campaign. “It’s my responsibility to do that; to make sure wise decisions are made and not just politically expedient decisions.”

Bosma wants his caucus to focus on the jobs and education agenda that GOP House leaders rolled out in October, which he dubbed “Achieving the American Dream.” He sees that agenda as a continuation of a decade-long effort by the legislature to boost Indiana’s job-creating environment.

But he acknowledges there are some contentious issues that could get in the way. Among them is the proposed constitutional amendment on same-sex marriage. The legislature is expected to vote on a resolution that would put Indiana’s current ban on same-sex marriage into the state constitution, if it also passes a public vote in the 2014 general election.

Years ago, Bosma said passing the proposed amendment one of the “most important” issues facing the legislature. He regrets saying that.

“It’s not one of the most important issues,” Bosma said this week.

There’s dissension within his own party over that. While some GOP lawmakers want to push through the amendment quickly, others are arguing against it, citing changing public opinions on same-sex marriage and a pending U.S. Supreme Court decision on the issue.

John Krull, a Franklin College journalism professor who’s been writing about the Statehouse for more than 30 years, said Bosma’s job isn’t easier just because his party has all the power.

“Whenever a party has a majority that great, the factions within the party become much more pronounced…” Krull said. “Every faction is going to think Christmas has come and think ‘we should get everything we want.’ ”

Bosma, said Krull, will have to call forth “every leadership skill he has” to tamp down the divisions between the social conservatives and the more moderate members of his caucus.

As he frequently does in conversation about the legislature, Bosma calls upon the memory of his late father, longtime state Sen. Charles Bosma, to talk about how he’ll proceed.

“My dad used to say a good leader does what’s right,” he said, “and let’s the politics shake out for themselves.”

Maureen Hayden covers the Statehouse for the CNHI newspapers in Indiana. She can be reached at maureen.hayden@indianamediagroup.com.

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