News From Terre Haute, Indiana

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February 28, 2011

A noisy and contentious week at the Statehouse

And would you believe it: posturing, political theater and pontificating?

INDIANAPOLIS — Noisy. That’s the first word that came to mind when I sat down to write this column.

Last week, the sheer volume of noise generated by legislators — both those who stayed and those who fled — and the thousands of protesters who gathered there daily seemed amplified by two things: architecture and emotion.

On the first: The Statehouse is a high-ceilinged, four-story building in the shape of a cross, designed around a central and soaring domed rotunda.  When you walk in the main public entrance on the second floor, you can look up and see the next two floors above you. The marble staircases on the south and north end are wide and open —  and the elevators are so small and few — that visitors seem naturally drawn to them.

Add in another element: The House and Senate chambers on the third floor are fronted by big windows along the main hallways, so that anyone walking by can see what their lawmakers are doing — or not doing — while in session.

So what that means is that when a couple thousand fired-up protesters gather inside the building, you can’t help but notice. Ditto for when 37 of the 40 House Democrats vacate the place, as they did last week when they fled the state to kill the quorum needed to do business in the House.

The protesters weren’t only the ones making a lot of noise. There was a lot of figurative fist-pounding and chest-thumping from some legislators, and no lack of voluminous words of condemnation from both sides.

It would take more words than I have room for in this column to explain the complexities of what led to this epic fight, but in short: Pro-business Republicans, emboldened by last November’s election victories that gave them power in both the state House and Senate, were on a path to push through some game-changing legislation that horrified the minority Democrats and the labor unions to which they’re beholden.

There are legitimate arguments on both sides for why each has staked its claims, and why neither wants to budge.

But there have been plenty of theatrics as well, with no lack of pontificating and performance art.

All of which leads me to this: There are days when it’s so hard to tell what’s real and not real in the Indiana Statehouse.

Let me give you a small example: The thousands of protesters who streamed through the Statehouse this week all had to pass through security for a weapons check. When they stood outside the chambers of both the House and Senate, loudly chanting their disapproval, they did so behind bullet-proof glass.

But these lawmakers are likely to pass a gun bill that would deny local elected officials the same kind of protection. The bill would bar local communities from restricting firearms in most public buildings and properties. The bill backers contend that the more armed the public is, the safer the public will be.

It seems they just don’t want that armed public to be too close to them

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

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