INDIANAPOLIS - Indiana House Democrats who fled the state nearly six weeks ago to protest a Republican agenda they considered an assault on labor unions and public education planned to return to the Statehouse on Monday, ending one of the longest legislative walkouts in recent U.S. history.
Minority Leader Patrick Bauer said he and his fellow Democrats would return from their headquarters-in-exile in Urbana, Ill., after winning concessions from Republicans over recent weeks on several proposals.
"This timeout gave millions of Hoosiers a real voice in their state government,'' Bauer, D-South Bend, said in a statement.
House Speaker Brian Bosma said he was pleased that Democrats were returning and said Bauer assured him they would work in good faith to complete their legislative duties before the regular session ends 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.''
John Schorg, a spokesman for the House Democrats, said they were en route back to Indiana after a caucus in Illinois and that Bauer planned a conference call with reporters before their arrival in Indianapolis.
Bosma planned to reconvene the House at 5 p.m. and said lawmakers would likely work late the rest of the week.
Bauer and most House Democrats had stalled action in the Indiana House after fleeing on Feb. 22 to protest 11 pieces of legislation, denying the House the two-thirds of members present needed to do business. The state constitution requires a quorum to conduct any official business, and the impasse had the potential to force a special session or even a government shut down if a new budget wasn't adopted before July 1.
Since the walkout began, Republicans have killed a "right-to-work'' proposal that would prohibit union representation fees from being a condition of employment and have agreed to changes on several other bills, such as capping the number of students who could use taxpayer money to attend private schools through a voucher program. Republicans originally envisioned the largest voucher program in the nation, but later agreed to cap the program at 7,500 students in the first year and 15,000 in the second year.
Republicans also made concessions to a bill that 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 remove school districts and state universities from its requirements. Bosma said Republicans have 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.
Bosma said he didn't consider the changes to that bill substantive, but said they may have contributed to the factors that drove Democrats back to the Statehouse.
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,'' Bauer said in the statement. "But, this is something to work with and we are headed back to Indianapolis to do just that.''
The standoff got a bit nasty at times with name-calling, scathing political ads, rowdy rallies and fines of $350 a day for absent Democrats but last week Republicans and Democrats seemed to tone down the rhetoric and were cautiously optimistic that the discussion between Bosma and Bauer could lead to a resolution.
Bosma said throughout the standoff that Republicans were open to changing their proposals but wouldn't cut any back-room deals with Bauer or take any items off their agenda.
Despite the delay, House Republicans won't have to remove much from their agenda because the only bill that was actually killed by the walkout was the "right-to-work'' proposal. Republicans in the House and Senate have assured Democrats the issue will not be resurrected this year, and Bosma extended deadlines for other measures.
The Indiana boycott came 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.