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Unions shake Indiana legislation

Laura McCrystal | Monday, February 28, 2011

Indiana State Democrats’ walkout of the Statehouse last week is part of a larger trend in politics, Notre Dame professor Jack Colwell said.

While many Notre Dame students are not familiar with Indiana politics, the current issues are relevant on a national level, said Colwell, adjunct professor of American Studies at Notre Dame and political columnist for the South Bend Tribune.

“And similar things may well be going on in [students’] own states,” he said. “Either [it is happening] now, or it will happen in the future, because it is a real battle with Republican governors seeking, among other things, to control the public employees’ unions, which had become pretty strong.”

Many Republicans blame labor unions for states’ fiscal problems, Colwell said, while Democrats argue that economic issues are more complex than union power.

“That battle’s going to be going on in a lot of states,” Colwell said. “And it’s part of the battle going on in Congress, too.”

Colwell said the walkout in Indiana disrupted what many believed would be a short legislative session.

“The session of the Indiana General Assembly, I don’t think, was getting much public attention at all,” Colwell said. “But low and behold, the Democrats in the House had different ideas.”

The 40 Democrats in the Indiana House of Representatives did not have the power to affect the outcome of Republicans’ votes on legislation, but there were enough of them to break the quorum, Colwell said. By fleeing to Illinois last week, they prevented the Indiana House from holding a vote.

“They did the only thing they could do,” Colwell said. “They wanted to kill some of the proposals.”

Since House Democrats fled the state, Republicans have declared a right-to-work bill dead. The bill would have cut the power of labor unions. But after Republicans gave up on the bill, Colwell said House Democrats did not return to Indiana because they are hoping for other, similar victories. The Democrats originally wanted to kill at least 10 proposed bills, he said.

“So the Democrats are trying to get some more of those killed,” Colwell said. “But I think the main thing they wanted to do was get public attention to what was happening.”

The Republicans’ other proposals involve union labor and Republican Gov. Mitch Daniels’ proposed education reform package, Colwell said. While Republicans may compromise on other issues, Colwell said the education reform package is extremely important to Daniels, who may run in the 2012 presidential election.

“He wanted a smooth, quick legislative session so he could then tell about his achievements and go to Iowa and New Hampshire and wherever he decides to go to present his presidential possibilities,” Colwell said. “This does kind of throw a monkey wrench into that.”

Democrats and Republicans will eventually reach a compromise, but Colwell said the current walkout has already lasted longer than other, similar disagreements.

Both Democrats and Republicans have staged walkouts in the past, but Colwell said it is unusual for a walkout to last more than a few days without reaching a compromise. Democrats walked out of the Indiana Statehouse Feb. 21 and have not yet returned.

Indiana’s current political climate is also an example of increasing partisanship around the country, Colwell said.

“I think it says that if anybody thought that both parties were going to get a message from the last election that they should be more cooperative and not so divisive, they didn’t get that message,” he said. “It’s more divisive than ever. They aren’t moving toward compromise at all.”