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March 2, 2011

Indiana voucher bill faces changes Democrats like

INDIANAPOLIS — Indiana House Republicans have planned changes to a controversial private school voucher bill that would narrow the scope of the program, and Democrats who have left the state because of that bill and others say such amendments may help bring them back to the Statehouse.

House Minority Leader Patrick Bauer told reporters by speakerphone from the Democrats’ headquarters-in-exile in Urbana, Ill., that the Republican willingness to change the voucher bill is good progress and said he was hopeful the standoff could end in a “matter of days.”

But don’t expect Bauer in Indianapolis soon. He still wants to talk with House Speaker Brian Bosma, R-Indianapolis, and hash out a compromise that could bring his caucus back. He said he would have his staff reach out to Bosma on Wednesday to try to arrange a meeting.

“He’s advocating compromise in the newspapers,” Bauer said of Bosma. “It would be more direct if he’d do it with me.”

Bosma said he’ll talk to Bauer if he returns to the Statehouse, but won’t negotiate any back room deals on amendments or agree to take any GOP proposals off the table. Republicans could easily defeat any amendments Democrats propose, so Bauer wants to negotiate with Bosma to get some assurance on changes to make the bill and others more palatable. Bosma contends that amendments should be dealt with in public on the House floor.

“Here’s my assurance — come back and do your work and you’ll be treated fairly as you have every day of this session,” Bosma said. “If you’ve got a great idea, we’ll take it. If your idea’s no good, we’ll see how it fares on the floor.”

Bauer, D-South Bend, said it’s pointless to simply meet with Bosma without negotiating.

“That’s not working anything out,” Bauer said. “I met him over 20 years ago — I don’t have to meet him.”

House Democrats consider several Republican proposals as attacks on the middle class, but one bill they consider most onerous is a voucher proposal that would use taxpayer money to help parents send their children to private school. That bill is headed for major changes regardless of the Democrats’ boycott of the House, where Republicans hold a 60-40 majority.

To win enough support for the bill from his own caucus, Bosma said Republicans need to limit the number of students who could receive vouchers and further restrict qualifying income levels so that vouchers are directed to more needy students.

Currently the bill includes no cap on the number of students who can participate, and families of four making up to about $80,000 a year could receive a scholarship to a private school. Rep. Robert Behning, R-Indianapolis, said an amendment he’ll propose would restrict that to about $60,000 for a family of four and would limit the voucher program to 1 percent of the state’s school population the first year, with a 2 percent cap the second year and no cap after that.

Bosma predicted the voucher bill could pass the 100-member House with about 55 votes, but only after amendments are adopted.

“It’s going to take some changes,” he said.

Nearly 50 amendments have been filed on the voucher bill, most by Democrats. However, adopting amendments — or conducting any House business — requires a quorum, and the Democrats’ boycott has prevented that from happening.

The Democrats’ boycott has already killed a “right-to-work” bill that would have prohibited union membership from being a condition of employment. Republicans say they won’t try to resurrect that proposal. But Bosma said he will not allow the boycott to kill other bills and plans to extend legislative deadlines to keep the other proposals on the House calendar alive as long as necessary.

Democrats, who haven’t outlined specifics of changes they want before they’ll return, say they simply want Republicans to negotiate.

“The other side has to be willing to talk,” said Rep. Scott Pelath, D-Michigan City. “When you begin to talk, then you can begin to identify the specifics that are very important to both sides. But we haven’t gotten to that point yet.”

Bosma said Tuesday that fines are among the only options left to try to persuade the boycotting Democrats to return after a week in Illinois. He said he’s being contacted by a growing number of the public who want Democrats fined, which is allowed by House rules. Bosma said he’s considering it, but just wants Democrats to come back to work “like big boys and girls.”

Bosma noted that fines have been threatened in previous walkouts, but are often waived as a condition of the minority party returning. Bauer said fines would be no worse than the turmoil working families would experience if the Republican proposals passed.

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