Business in the Indiana Statehouse has been operating on an on-again, off-again manner for the past few weeks as Democrats seek to stall passage of a controversial "right-to-work" bill by not showing up for key votes. The measure would make it illegal to require workers who don't wish to join a union to pay union fees as a condition of their employment.
The stakes were raised for Democrats on Wednesday after House Republicans passed a motion to fine unexcused members $1,000 for each day they are absent. Base pay for members is only about $22,000 — plus a per diem to cover living expenses in Indianapolis while the legislature is in session — so the fines represent a significant hit.
Fines began yesterday and will continue until the end of the session whenever a quorum is absent, unless Democrats prevail in seeking a court order to block the fines. The Republicans' motion condemns absent members, arguing that the "purposeful absence of the participating members has disenfranchised not only their own constituents but all Hoosiers as important legislative business cannot be conducted." Democrats continue to attend committee meetings and say they are willing to conduct business on unrelated issues, even on the House floor.
Last year, when Democrats staged a five-week walkout over similar issues, many House Democrats were fined more than $3,000. Most of those fines were deducted from members' paychecks, though some opted to submit personal checks to the House clerk instead. A court case challenging those fines is still pending.
Democratic Senators in Wisconsin also were fined last year for denying a quorum by fleeing to Illinois, but those fines were rescinded after they returned to the floor. In 2003, House Democrats in Texas forfeited their per diems when they fled the state to avoid a vote on redistricting. The National Conference of State Legislatures has no record of other states imposing fines to compel a legislative quorum.
Democratic state Representative Kreg Battles, of Vincennes, says that he is determined not to let the fines deter him from making decisions that he believes to be in the best interests of his constituents. Still, he says, being fined $3,200 during the last legislative session took a true financial toll on him because he takes unpaid leave from his job as a high school chemistry teacher when the legislature is in session.
"It is not only weighing heavily on me; it's weighing heavily on my family," he says. "But my family also believes there is an issue of right and wrong at stake."
Republican and Democratic House leaders brokered a deal last week that was supposed to allow business to resume as usual. The deal was to have the House vote on Tuesday on the idea of putting the issue to voters in a referendum.
But Democrats abruptly delayed the House vote, and any other action on the floor, again on Tuesday. That came after they learned on Monday night that the nonpartisan Legislative Services Agency had found that the language the House was set to vote on was "unlikely" to comply with the state constitution.
Democrats argue that all that is needed is a technical fix, and that they should be allowed time to work with the Legislative Services Agency to make those changes before further action is taken on the bill.
Republicans argue that Democrats have gone back on their word and must be punished for neglecting to do their jobs.