The View From Indiana

Posted: Fri, 03/04/2011 - 12:49pm

INDIANAPOLIS -- This otherwise unprepossessing state capitol has in recent weeks morphed into one of several hot spots around the nation that are testing what it means to govern and be governed.

I had the chance to see for myself this week at the invitation of WFYI, the public broadcasting outlet in the Hoosier State capital. Lawmakers in the Indiana General Assembly have been locked in a deep freeze over the state budget. The new Republican leadership has been standing fast against state teacher unions, while Democratic lawmakers hold out in a Comfort Suites across the state line in Urbana, Illinois.

When I visited on Thursday, Democrats had just begun negotiating with the Republican House leadership on sticking points involving school vouchers and the minimum wage. The bill that caused the walkout in the first place - which would have eliminated right-to-work laws for state workers, had already been withdrawn. Tempers were rising. Indiana Governor Mitch Daniels accused the missing of legislating from the hotel hot tub, and remaining Republicans threatened to fine them for each day they remain away.

In recent weeks, we have seen similar scenarios play out in Wisconsin and Ohio as lawmakers duke it out over budgets, collective bargaining rights and spending priorities. I'd been watching mostly from a distance in Washington, and was curious how the story felt on the ground.

I'd gotten a hint from reading the Indianapolis Star, which has been reporting on the stand-off nonstop. I imagined once I arrived in town, I would see protesters flooding the streets. After all, I was there to speak to the Economic Club, which holds its speakers' luncheons at the convention center, conveniently right across the street from the State Capitol.

But there was not that much drama to be had. As a matter of fact, the streets were very quiet. And whenever I asked someone excitedly "what's going on?" I was more likely to get a shrug and roll of the eyes in return than a fist in the air.

It was a good reminder that, just as in Washington, most of these battles are waged by partisans. Everybody else just wishes, They Would Just Get On With It..

Lawmakers probably ought to remember that too. There's a reason Governor Daniels urged his fellow Republicans not to pick a fight over right-to-work legislation. There's a reason GOP lawmakers are signaling their willingness to deal on the other outstanding conflicts. Public patience only goes so far.

It also helps explain why, in Washington, each side seems anxious to blame the other for dilly-dallying over a government spending plan the President signed this week. It pays for government operations for only another two weeks, but neither Democrats nor Republicans appear to have the stomach for yet another government spending shutdown.

"If you give Congress four weeks, guess what? They'll take four weeks," House Speaker John Boehner (R-OH) said, "If you give 'em six weeks, they'll take six weeks. We've got two weeks. Lets get the job done."

But it's how the job gets done that appears to be troubling the Democrats. "Democrats believe that spending cuts are part of the solution," House Democratic Whip Rep. Steny Hoyer (D-MD) said. "Let there be no mistake. We need to cut spending, but we also believe those cuts must be smart and targeted, not pegged to an arbitrary number."

So the fight is on. Just don't be surprised if the states beat Washington to the punch in figuring out how it's all going to end.