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Indiana Legislature opens with battle over unions and worker rights

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Associated Press Writer

INDIANAPOLIS (AP) — Sparks flew on the first full day of the 2011 legislative session Wednesday when Democrats in the GOP-dominated Indiana House tried to derail so-called right-to-work legislation.

The proposal, which would prevent workers from being required to pay union dues, is backed by Republicans who believe the law impedes business. Democrats tried to force a vote on a day that typically consists of handshakes and pledges from both parties to work together.

Giving new legislators their first taste of party-line voting, a skirmish over the rules began just minutes after lawmakers said the Pledge of Allegiance. Democrats requested — in a largely symbolic move — that the bill be read so they could force an initial on-the-record vote. But House Speaker Brian Bosma ruled they were too late, which moved the legislation to a committee for a possible hearing.

Bosma, R-Indianapolis, said it was “inappropriate” to force a vote on the matter before it even had a hearing.

Democrats said they were within the rules to challenge the bill. Bosma later allowed them to object to another bill that would prohibit contracts for public works projects from requiring bidders to enter into agreements with labor unions. But majority Republicans quickly voted against their effort to defeat the bill, which is now headed to a committee.

After the floor session, Bosma said the rules might need to be changed to prohibit forced votes on issues before they have hearings.

Despite the bickering, Bosma said he would stick to his previous commitment of offering bipartisanship to Democrats, who lost control of the House in November’s elections.

“We’ll draw back a bloody hand every once and a while. We’ll mop it off and we’ll extend it again to those who are willing to work together for the people of the state of Indiana,” Bosma said.

House Minority Leader Patrick Bauer, D-South Bend, said Democrats were following the rules and he was simply “doing my duty as minority leader.”

The right-to-work issue has the potential to be so divisive that Republican Gov. Mitch Daniels has said he would prefer to avoid it to focus on other issues.

Bosma said he’s voted for such legislation in the past but wasn’t sure of its chances this year. He said he doesn’t want it to detract from more important issues, and lawmakers have plenty of those to tackle.

The agenda will be dominated by four main goals GOP lawmakers have set for themselves: creating a new state budget, dealing with proposed sweeping education changes, drawing new political maps through redistricting and finding a solution for the state’s broken unemployment insurance fund.

“Those are the big four,” said Senate President Pro Tem David Long, R-Fort Wayne.

In the Senate, Wednesday’s session was largely procedural as bills started moving through the legislative system. Long said lawmakers hope to start working quickly on fixing the unemployment insurance fund.

The state has borrowed $1.9 billion from the federal government to keep making unemployment insurance payments in a system that pays out more to jobless workers than it collects from employers. The Daniels administration has proposed cutting the payment amounts received by certain workers, such as those in construction, who face seasonal unemployment. Businesses with frequent layoffs could also see their unemployment taxes go up.

Creating a two-year balanced budget will also be a challenge for lawmakers. Senate Appropriations Chairman Luke Kenley, R-Noblesville, has estimated that the General Assembly would have to cut about $1 billion from current spending to cover the budget gap and leave a healthy amount in reserve. Lawmakers and Daniels have said that’s possible without cutting education, but it will mean making tough decisions about cuts elsewhere.

“There aren’t easy solutions,” Long said. “The one thing we are in total agreement on is we’re not going to raise taxes to balance the budget. We’ll find answers within our existing revenue sources.”

While Daniels hopes to avoid cuts to public schools, he is pushing for school changes that would change the education landscape in Indiana. He wants to restrict teacher collective bargaining, use student test scores to evaluate teachers and create a voucher program that would use taxpayer money to help families send children to private school. Many Democrats oppose those ideas, but will have little say in the matter since they have no power in the legislature.

Republicans will also have full control of the redistricting process this year. Legislators will use data from the 2010 Census to redraw maps of the state’s nine congressional and 150 state legislative districts for the next decade.




Posted 1/6/2011




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