News From Terre Haute, Indiana

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January 8, 2012

STATE OF THE STATEHOUSE: Legislative labor bill banter goes on

No one really expected the start of the 2012 session of the Indiana General Assembly to be uneventful.

Those expectations were fulfilled last week with a political wrestling match over a contentious labor bill heralded by Republican leaders and hated by their Democratic counterparts.

If passed, Indiana would become the 23rd state in the nation with a so-called right-to-work law that outlaws agreements between labor unions and employers that make membership or payment of union dues or fees a condition of employment.

The legislation proved divisive from the get-go. It’s what sent House Democrats into an unofficial walkout the very first day of the session and kept them out the rest of the week.

Republicans who control the Statehouse weren’t happy. They want to fast-track the controversial legislation — and clear the sidewalks leading into the Statehouse of bill protesters — before national news crews arrive for next month’s Super Bowl in Indianapolis.

Simple math puts the “yea” votes on the side of bill supporters, who’ve tried to make the case that the legislation is simply a job-creator needed in a job-hungry state with a 9 percent unemployment rate.

But it’s not so simple. A marathon committee hearing on the bill, conducted Friday, raised a lot of questions about just how much impact such legislation would have over the long term.

The testimony in front of a joint House-Senate labor committee was often conflicting, as speakers wielded rival studies from other states.

Here’s a sample of that: After the president of The State Chamber of Oklahoma (that state’s version of the Chamber of Commerce) boasted Oklahoma’s right-to-work law pushed the state from 40th to first in job creation six months after Oklahomans voted it in by referendum, a University of Oregon economist said it wasn’t so.

The economist, Gordon Lafer, is a critic of right-to-work legislation. He said Oklahoma’s job growth was pushed by other factors, including the state’s booming oil industry. Lafer also pointed out that Indiana saw twice the manufacturing job growth from 2009 to 2011 than five right-to-work states combined: Iowa, Kansas, Nebraska, North Dakota and South Dakota.

Bill supporters and opponents alike both claim to have most Hoosiers on their side of the debate, but that seems questionable, too.

More believable is the study that came out of Ball State University’s nonpartisan Bowen Center for Public Affairs last month. That study showed 27 percent of Hoosiers were for a right-to-work law while 24 percent were against. The rest — almost half the Hoosiers polled — said they don’t have an opinion on the issue or they don’t understand it.

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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