Indiana House Democrats who fled the state five weeks ago to protest a Republican agenda they considered an assault on labor unions and public education returned to the Statehouse on Monday and resumed work.
Minority Leader Patrick Bauer said he and his fellow Democrats ended one of the longest legislative walkouts in recent U.S. history after winning concessions from Republicans over recent weeks on several issues.
"We're coming back after softening the radical agenda," said Bauer, D-South Bend, whose return was greeted by cheering union workers. "We won a battle, but we recognize the war goes on."
Republican House Speaker Brian Bosma gaveled in the chamber Monday evening, giving the House its first quorum since Democrats fled to Illinois on Feb. 22.
"It's refreshing and pleasant to see a full chamber," he said.
But what Democrats actually achieved with the walkout is a matter of debate. The concessions are likely more than Democrats would have gained had they not boycotted — but won't stop the GOP agenda.
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 actually 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 agreed to 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. Republicans also agreed last week to reduce the number of government projects that would be exempt from the state's prevailing construction wage law, but the amended bill is still expected to pass.
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 pushed by Republicans who took sweeping control of the House in 2010 elections.
Thousands of people attended Statehouse rallies during the walkout, and hundreds of people 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.
Bauer and Indiana AFL-CIO President Nancy Guyott said the public outcry helped pressure Republicans into changing the proposals. Guyott said some legislation harmful to unions "has been scuttled as Hoosiers from all corners of the state raised their voices."
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. Supporters of the GOP agenda said Republicans have the right to push for changes supported by the majority of the population.
"The only thing 'radical' about this session has been the decision by one caucus to walk off the job for five weeks," Gov. Mitch Daniels said in a statement.
The Democrats had fled to protest 11 pieces of legislation, denying the House the two-thirds of members present needed to do business, since the state constitution requires a quorum to conduct any official business.
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 now is headed to court.
The Indiana standoff 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 last week Republicans and Democrats seemed to tone down the rhetoric.
The walkout had the potential to force a special session or even a government shutdown if a new budget wasn't adopted before July 1. Bosma predicted that 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."
Bosma said he didn't consider the changes to the government projects bill substantive. That proposal would have originally increased from $150,000 to $1 million the point at which projects were exempt from the state's prevailing construction wage law and removed school districts and state universities from its requirements. Republicans have since agreed to set the limit at $250,000 the first year and raise that to $350,000 the second year. They also agreed to delete the school and university exemptions.
On the private school voucher bill, Republicans agreed to cap the program at 7,500 students in the first year and 15,000 in the second year.
House Democrats and Republicans worked together on several bills Monday, and unanimously approved changes to the government project bill.
Bauer said the compromises aren't perfect.
"Democrats aren't bound to vote for them, and we will make an effort to continue to amend the proposals before us," he said.