By Emily Ketterer
INDIANAPOLIS – Sen. Greg Taylor told members of the Senate to “buckle up” for another one of his lengthy speeches on hate crimes.
Taylor, of Indianapolis, is one of 10 Democrats in the 50-member Senate and he knows he won’t change anybody’s mind because the issue has already been decided. He and Democrats in the General Assembly are vocal even if they know it, they stand little chance of changing legislation with one party ruling the chamber.
“This is the part of democracy that we all miss,” Taylor said. “Everybody believes when we get up on the floor and we’re having a discussion, we’re debating the issue.
Sen. Greg Taylor, D-Indianapolis, said with the Republicans having power over the two chambers, they get to discuss what will happen, while Democrats can only talk about the “what-ifs.” Photo by Emily Ketterer, TheStatehouseFile.com
“What we’re talking about here is making sure the public understands what we’re saying.”
Republicans control two-thirds or more of the seats in each chamber in the General Assembly, enough to convene and pass laws without Democrats. The last time they wielded any significant influence was in 2012 when Republicans passed right-to-work laws that undercut unions. Democrats walked out, stopping work in the House because Republicans did not have a quorum to pass laws alone. That is impossible now.
The Republican party has held the supermajority in the Senate since the 1990s, but in the House, the majority parties flip-flopped until 2010 when Republicans look over and eventually gained a supermajority.
Indiana joins 22 other states whose legislatures hold supermajorities in one or both chambers, and the state is one of 16 Republican supermajorities.
The GOP controls so many seats because Indiana is a red state, said Sen. Jim Merritt, R-Indianapolis. He said there may be one or two Indiana districts that maybe don’t belong in his party, but overall, Republicans still win the most votes.
“We run good campaigns,” Merritt said. “It’s still a Republican state.”
That doesn’t mean they leave the Democrats out on the Senate floor, even though they could, he said.
But on a major vote Senate Republicans did vote on bills without Democrats present. That happened in February after Democrats walked out in protest to an amendment that stripped down the hate crimes bill.
That was a rare event, Merritt said, adding, “It happened once this year, but that was because we had to get work done.”
But most of the time the GOP majority includes the minority party, Merritt said. “They’re Hoosiers. It’s important to have a bridge between the two parties.”
Sen. Jim Merritt, R-Indianapolis, was one of few Republicans who voted against the party on stripping the original hate crimes bill. Photo by Emily Ketterer, TheStatehouseFile.com
Still, being in a minority position left Democrats to address the issues on their agenda through amendments to existing bills.
Raising teacher pay was one of their biggest goals and Rep. Ed DeLaney, D-Indianapolis, offered amendments to raise salaries to a $40,000 minimum. He was quickly shut down.
Paid family leave was another issue, and Sen. Karen Tallian, D-Portage, had a bill that passed the Senate but failed to get a hearing in the House.
And on the budget, Democrats in the House called 27 amendments and only passed one and a half, which did include protections for pre-existing conditions in health insurance. The Senate Democrats passed five budget amendments out of 31 called.
As a result of the imbalance in power, much of the debate occurs within the parties behind closed doors in caucus meeting without input from the other side. Democrats argue that even though those meetings are legal for both parties, they discourage open debate and undermine democracy.
“While we’re talking about what-ifs,” Taylor said of Democrats. “They’re [Republicans] talking about what’s going to happen.”
This was made clear during the process of passing the hate crimes legislation. Senate Republicans made the decision in caucus to strip out the list of protected characteristics, including race, gender identity, sexual orientation, disability and more, from the original bill. The Democrats protested the change, and there was little debate from the majority party on the floor and the bill passed without the list.
“A lot of people that day didn’t talk on the topic because we did more listening than we did talking,” Merritt said. “The chamber hadn’t been that quiet all session.”
Similarly, in the House, a public committee hearing was not given to the original hate crimes bill, and Republicans added hate crimes language into a drug sentencing bill. This was all done behind closed doors in caucus meetings.
“What happened in the House was obnoxious, cowardly, disrespectful misuse of the system,” said Tallian on the Senate floor as senators were about to send the bill to the governor. “There was no committee debate. Instead it was slipped in a second-reading amendment like a thief in the night.”
However, Merritt said party caucus meetings are not used to make decisions behind closed doors. He said he and his party use their meetings to learn more about the issues to be on the same page because some lawmakers know more about a topic than others.
“We haven’t squashed debate,” Merritt said. “I really didn’t know a lot about payday loans until we started caucusing, just having conversations. You can’t really do that on the floor.”
But having a majority that can do what they want without the other party ultimately doesn’t serve the legislature very well, said Republican Rep. Dan Leonard of Huntington, who has been in both the minority and majority party during his time in the General Assembly.
He said he hates supermajorities because that can lead to the majority party getting “sloppy” when passing bills. He said in order to pass better legislation, both parties need to have equal say.
“You get to the point where I could say, ‘I don’t want to listen to you, I don’t have time for you. And it’s not going to make a difference anyway because we’re going to outvote you,’” Leonard said. “A supermajority makes it worse because we don’t even need the Democrats. They can just walk out.”
Bringing the voices
“There’s a lot of things that the Indiana Democrats would probably love to see pass in the legislation, but they know darn well that’s not going to happen,” said Laura Merrifield Wilson, assistant professor of political science at University of Indianapolis.
“They can’t necessarily prevent bills from becoming laws, but they can do everything in their power to challenge and critically analyze.”
Senate Minority Leader Tim Lanane, D-Anderson, said as the minority, they know they don’t have a huge impact, and they also know they can’t just do nothing.
Senate Minority Leader Tim Lanane, D-Anderson, said Democrats are there to ask important questions when no one else will. Photo by Emily Ketterer, TheStatehouseFile.com
“We may not have the votes all the time, but we have the voices,” Lanane said. “And if we just sit there and do nothing, then we have failed.”
In the House, DeLaney said he feels like he is shouting into the void to his Republican colleagues because sometimes they don’t always pay attention to him.
He cited the cigarette tax as an example. He said no one in the Republican party will get up and say that smoking isn’t bad, but still won’t listen to Democrats. An amendment to increase the tax was proposed one final time on the state budget when it was in the Senate, and Sen. Randy Head, R-Logansport, said––speaking on behalf of the Senate Republicans–– he and the caucus support a tax, just not this year.
Merrifield Wilson said in most cases, the Indiana Democrats have to stick together to keep their numbers in votes, and for Republicans, they are at a bigger risk for speaking out against their own party in terms of their reputation.
“For the Republicans that disagree, you’re not disagreeing with the opposition here, you’re disagreeing with your own party. There’s a lot more at stake for them … they understand the larger picture,” Merrifield Wilson said.
But Merritt said members of his party feel free to vote their conscience and cites the Senate’s original hate crimes bill as an example. He was among seven Senate Republicans to vote against the stripped-down legislation.
“What I do is when I do that, I make myself clear on what my position is,” he said.
Like hate crimes, there are issues that cut across party lines. The bill that expands gambling to allow sports wagering and a new casino in Terre Haute needed the support of both parties. The final vote in the House was 59-36 with 22 Democrats and 37 Republicans voting yes.
At the end of the session, Lanane noted that Democrats were instrumental in killing a controversial payday lending bill that would have allowed lenders to charge interest rates far exceeding the state’s 72 percent annual limit.
“Thank goodness for the Democrats,” he said.
Emily Ketterer is a reporter for TheStatehouseFile.com, a news website powered by Franklin College journalism students.