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Mark Bennett Opinion

February 27, 2011

MARK BENNETT: Novembers to remember

Outcomes of clashes over GOP’s agenda decided on last two election days

TERRE HAUTE — The events surrounding the Indiana Statehouse in the past few weeks shouldn’t be surprising.

Some proposed laws got the public’s attention, such as those that would prevent communities from restricting the presence or use of guns in public settings, or prohibit union membership or fees from being a condition of employment. Some procedural tactics caused an uproar, especially the Democrats’ drastic decision to leave the Indiana House of Representatives and camp out in Illinois to stall (or thwart) legislation they oppose.

Republican-driven bills in the House and Senate ignited protests by teachers (opposing education reform bills) and union members (opposing a “right-to-work” bill). The “right-to-work” legislation — now apparently dead, as a result of the Democrats’ walkout — was part of a conservative social agenda that Gov. Mitch Daniels wisely urged his fellow Republicans in the General Assembly to bypass in the 2011 session. Instead, they capitalized on their party’s new-found control in Indianapolis, pushed the “right-to-work” bill half way to passage (lighting the fuse for the Democrats’ revolt), and continued to divert from Daniels’ agenda, which focuses on vast education and budget reforms.

Some Hoosiers are happy about that.

Others (as last week’s fireworks reveal) are angry and see the Republicans’ actions as over-reaching.

Some folks in the latter group may be rethinking choices they made on Nov. 2, 2010, and Nov. 4, 2008 — the last two election days. Lest we forget, Indiana voted for all of this.

By overwhelming numbers.

A total of 1,542,371 Hoosiers voted to re-elect Daniels in 2008. The incumbent governor received 57.8 percent of the vote, an impressive feat considering Indiana favored Democrat Barack Obama in the presidential race. Daniels’ Democratic opponent, Jill Long Thompson (surely you remember her), mustered a distant 40 percent. The Washington Post labeled Daniels’ win “The Best Gubernatorial Campaign of the Year.”

But anyone upset about the latest developments in the Statehouse also should reflect on Nov. 2, 2010.

Only 41 percent of Indiana’s 4,329,153 registered voters actually showed up at the polls that day. It was merely a midterm election, though. Even though seats in the state House and Senate, as well as U.S. Congress, were at stake, the balloting lacked the allure of a presidential race. So, relative to past midterm elections, a 41-percent turnout looked strong. All of those tea party rallies and rage over the president’s health-care reform initiatives actually boosted the turnout.

Still, 2,542,940 registered Hoosier voters stayed home last November.

Among the 1,786,213 registered voters who did fill out ballots in person or by absentee, many independents (and some Democrats) joined the nationwide Republican wave — fueled by the health-care reform revolt. GOP candidates for the Indiana House and Senate benefited. Half of the Senate’s 50 seats were up for grabs, and Republicans won 19 of them, giving the party an overall “super majority” of 37-13. The Republican candidates for those four-year state Senate jobs received 524,770 total votes from Hoosiers (or a whopping 62 percent), while their Democrat rivals mustered just 312,270. (Libertarians got 9,245.)

Just as emphatically, voters wanted Republican representation in the Indiana House. With all 100 of those two-year terms in play, Democrats saw their previous majority obliterated as the Republicans won 60 of the seats. A total of 999,186 Hoosiers (61 percent) voted for GOP House candidates, with just 597,625 voting Democratic, and 51,790 supporting Libertarians and other third-party choices.

Maybe some people didn’t realize their votes would open the door for laws that would allow public money to be used for vouchers at private schools, or divert limited state education funds for charter schools, or allow licensed concealed weapons to be carried into hospitals or county council meetings, or to restrict collective bargaining rights. But in this era of political polarization and party-line votes, any proposal — even one seldom (or never) discussed during the previous campaign — stands a chance of passing through the Legislature and becoming law, especially when one party controls the House and Senate, as well as the governor’s post.

Tim Skinner, a Democrat senator from Terre Haute, best summed up the situation. Since the legislative session opened in January, Skinner — a teacher himself, who’s spoken supportively to fellow educators protesting at the Statehouse — has frequently said “it’s too late” now for teachers unions to stop the sweeping education reforms favored by Daniels and the Republican lawmakers. He’s right. The same is true for people who disagree with various other laws that will roll out of the Statehouse this winter.

The decisive moment came and went on Nov. 2.

Mark Bennett can be reached at (812) 231-4377 or mark.bennett@tribstar.com.

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