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Minority Leader Pat Bauer of South Bend, second from left, leads the House Democrats back to the Capitol on Monday.

After 35 days, Democrats return to Indiana Statehouse

Unions cheer; GOP welcome less than warm

– House Democrats received a cool reception from their Republican colleagues Monday evening when Democrats ended a cross-state stalemate and returned to the House floor for the first time in more than a month.

Lawmakers stuck to their respective sides of the aisle, with no friendly conversations or warm greetings.

The House immediately got down to business – focusing on about 50 bills that have been stranded on the House calendar since Feb. 21.

“Our pro-jobs agenda of low spending, low taxes, and educational improvement is squarely in the Hoosier mainstream,” Gov. Mitch Daniels said. “The only thing ‘radical’ about this session has been the decision by one caucus to walk off the job for five weeks. Now that it’s finally over, let’s make up the lost time.”

Republican House Speaker Brian Bosma welcomed all the members back, saying “it is refreshing and pleasant to see a full chamber.”

The returning Democrats were greeted outside the Statehouse by crowds of cheering union workers. After they were inside, they went straight to their desks and started rifling through hundreds of amendments awaiting action.

Rep. Win Moses, D-Fort Wayne, said the rift between House Republicans and Democrats should heal pretty quickly.

“Probably not today but a week from now we’ll be back to where we were,” he said.

Rep. Rebecca Kubacki, R-Syracuse, said she’s just glad the standoff is finally over.

“I don’t waste time on hard feelings,” she said. “We need to prioritize and get things moving.”

In the end, one final concession on a public works bill persuaded Democrats to return after five weeks of boycotting the legislative process from an Illinois hotel.

“We are coming back after softening the radical agenda. We won a battle but recognize the war goes on,” House Democratic Leader Patrick Bauer said. “This finally brought more attention to what’s going on in the Indiana state legislature. We still have our constitutional obligation to keep the process in the middle.”

Bosma said he thought public pressure and the weeks in a hotel away from family during the impasse pulled the Democrats back.

During that time, Republicans also agreed to several concessions.

“We could have been in this spot pretty quickly if people were here and debated the issues,” Bosma said.

He also said the Republican agenda on education and other items will pass this year largely intact, despite the walkout and any compromises made.

House Democrats fled to Illinois on Feb. 22, effectively freezing out legislative action because of a lack of quorum.

The total length of the walkout – not counting Monday since they returned to work – was 35 days.

Bauer said his caucus members met in a private meeting Monday morning and unanimously agreed to come back.

It came after Republicans filed an amendment to delay the effective date of a bill about project labor agreements and the common construction wage.

House Bill 1216 would change the agreements that are entered into on public construction projects to make it easier for non-union companies to bid on them. The bill also would change the common construction wage, which is a minimum salary for public projects that is determined by a panel in each county. Currently, the wage is set for all projects costing more than $150,000.

The GOP initally wanted to raise that minimum to $1 million. The final agreement was an increase to $250,000 in 2012 and $350,000 in 2013. School and university projects also will remain covered by the common cocnstruction wage.

Republicans also agreed to hard caps on the number of state-paid private school vouchers that are allowed the first two years and killed the right-to-work bill that could have reduced union membership in the state.

Bosma said the fines that each member accrued during the walkout will not be forgiven. The average fine for the Democrats is about $3,150.

“Those fines were worth it,” Bauer said.

He also said his members agreed to participate in legislative work – no more walkouts – if Republicans keep their word on key bills.

Tom Case, a 45-year-old Fort Wayne union carpenter who was at the Statehouse to protest Monday, said he’s unsure the concessions were enough for the Democrats to give in.

“The Republicans are way out of bounds,” he said. “They are going to lower the standard of living for everyone in the area.”

nkelly@jg.net

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