Indiana House Democrats are back at work after a five-week boycott to protest a Republican agenda they consider an assault on labor unions and public education, but whether their efforts will ultimately change the outcome of the legislation they opposed is unclear.
Republicans agreed to rejigger _ but not completely overhaul _ their plans as lawmakers resume work in the House. The Senate had already started working around the Democrats by holding separate hearings on bills stalled in the walkout. Still, Democrats insist concessions they've received on several issues, including school vouchers and labor legislation, made their boycott worthwhile.
"We're coming back after softening the radical agenda," said House Minority Leader Patrick Bauer, D-South Bend, whose Statehouse return Monday was greeted by cheering union workers. "We won a battle, but we recognize the war goes on."
The victories Democrats claim are likely more than they would have gained had they not boycotted, but they won't stop the agenda pushed by Republicans who won sweeping control of the House in last year's elections. Republican Gov. Mitch Daniels said bills aimed at improving education and keeping spending low are mainstream Hoosier ideas.
"The only thing 'radical' about this session has been the decision by one caucus to walk off the job for five weeks," Daniels said.
Republicans had vowed throughout the standoff that they wouldn't remove items from their agenda _ and by and large they won't have to. The only bill killed by the boycott was a "right-to-work" proposal that would prohibit union representation fees from being a condition of employment.
GOP legislators agreed to some changes on several other bills. For example, they will cap for two years the number of students who could participate in a voucher program using taxpayer money to attend private schools, but it would still be among the nation's most expansive use of vouchers when the limits expire. Another bill that would exempt certain government projects from the state's prevailing construction wage law was changed so that fewer projects would be exempt.
The Democrats' most significant achievement may be that people across the state are talking about these issues. Bauer said the public needed a "timeout" to learn about the agenda being pushed by Republicans.
Thousands of people attended Statehouse rallies during the walkout, and hundreds attended local town hall meetings. Many teachers said they didn't realize Republicans supported vouchers and other measures they think will erode public education, and some union members said they wished they had voted.
Tom Case, a union worker from Fort Wayne who was at the Statehouse protesting Monday, said he was glad Democrats staged the boycott.
"Republicans are going way out of bounds with what they're doing right now," he said.
In one sense, Democrats "punched above their weight," said Robert Dion, who teaches politics at the University of Evansville.
"They got the attention of the state, and they were able to finagle some meaningful concessions that I don't think were necessarily offered all that willingly," Dion said.
On the other hand, Dion said, Democrats have a bit of a black eye because the walkout lasted so long.
House Democrats had fled to Illinois on Feb. 22 to protest 11 pieces of legislation, denying the House the two-thirds of members present needed to do business as required by the state constitution. The move had the potential to force a special session or even a government shutdown if a new budget wasn't adopted before July 1.
Indiana's boycott began a week after Wisconsin's Democratic senators left for Illinois in their three-week boycott against a law barring most public employees from collective bargaining. Wisconsin Republicans used a parliamentary maneuver to pass the law without them, and the matter is now headed to court.
The Indiana standoff became one of the longest legislative walkouts in recent U.S. history. The impasse got a bit nasty at times _ with name-calling, scathing political ads, rowdy rallies and fines totaling more than $3,000 for most absent Democrats. But Republicans and Democrats seemed to tone down the rhetoric last week as they discussed possible changes to bills.
Lawmakers began making up for five weeks of lost time Monday. Republican House Speaker Brian Bosma gaveled in the chamber early Monday evening, and lawmakers began working on bills in earnest. Lawmakers worked their way through a large chunk of the House calendar, which was the same as the day Democrats left.
Bosma predicted lawmakers would have plenty of late nights as they work toward the scheduled end of the regular legislative session April 29.
"It's long past time to get to the people's business," Bosma said. "Hopefully we can make this work in five short weeks."