INDIANAPOLIS (Reuters) - Over 8,000 workers converged on the Indiana statehouse on Thursday to protest proposed legislation they say would weaken unions and public schools.
Most Indiana House Democrats left the state over two weeks ago to avoid giving the majority Republicans the two-thirds quorum needed for a vote on the legislation.
"Today was a good chance for the workers to show how this legislation will affect them," said John Schorg, spokesman for the House Democrats.
Protesters hung a banner outside the west front of the Statehouse proclaiming "Hoosiers Standing up for the Middle Class." The cold, sunless windy weather may have kept the crowds down -- organizers had expected more than 20,000.
The Indiana House is not in session until Monday.
Democrats object to bills they see as anti-worker. Their main targets include a bill that would create a state-wide school voucher system, allowing public funds to pay for private school tuition, and a bill that would prohibit bidders on public works projects from entering into labor agreements, Schorg said. A third bill would mean that public employees don't have to pay union dues.
Indiana Governor Mitch Daniels backs the voucher program because it would give more choice to students from low-income and middle-income families, according to Scott Jenkins, Daniels' education policy director. He compared it to public aid that goes to college students whether they attend private or public universities.
"No one's ever said providing need-based aid to ITT Tech weakens the public university system in Indiana," Jenkins said, referring to a for-profit technical institute based in the state.
In a statement, Republican House Speaker Brian Bosma said that while he supports the rights of every Hoosier, and even their out-of-state colleagues, to appear at the statehouse, they have misrepresented Republican proposals.
"No reasonably informed person can honestly state that our desire to transform public education is an effort to destroy it," Bosma said.
"In fact, our hope is just the opposite - to make outstanding education options, whether public or private, available to every Hoosier family."
Marisa Graham, an Indiana public school teacher at the protest, said the Republican agenda would destroy public education, which she called "the cornerstone of our Democracy."
"I never dreamed that decades of progress would be unraveled," Graham said.
The move by Indiana legislators to prevent a quorum on anti-union legislation is similar to that by 14 Wisconsin Democratic state senators, who stayed in Illinois to prevent a vote on a bill that would limit collective bargaining rights for public workers.
Tuesday night, in a surprise move, Wisconsin Republicans pushed the measure through the Senate by taking out elements related to appropriating funds, thus removing the need for a quorum of 20 senators to be present for the vote. There are 19 senate Republicans.
Democratic spokesman Schorg said Indiana Republicans won't be able to try the same tactic, because a two-thirds quorum is required for any work to be done. Republicans outnumber Democrats 60-40 in the Indiana House, and most Indiana Democrats are staying in Urbana, Illinois.
(Reporting by Susan Guyett; Writing by Mary Wisniewski; Editing by Jerry Norton)