INDIANAPOLIS — The leader of the boycotting Indiana House Democrats said Thursday they are diligently working to find a way for a voter referendum on the contentious right-to-work bill, one that would survive questions on whether it is allowed under the state Constitution.
Democratic leader Patrick Bauer said the proposal could be prepared as soon as Friday, possibly clearing the way for the 35 absent Democrats to return to the House floor and allowing action on the right-to-work bill and other legislation.
House Speaker Brian Bosma, R-Indianapolis, tried to gavel the House into order twice on Thursday. With only five of the 40 House Democrats present, there were too few members to conduct business — the sixth of 11 days it has tried to meet this month.
Most of the absent Democrats were at a private meeting inside a Statehouse conference room. Majority Republicans voted Wednesday to impose $1,000-a-day fines on the boycotters.
Several dozen union protesters cheered from a hallway outside the House chamber as Bosma announced the House did not have a quorum. After two attempts to convene, Bosma said he would try again Friday morning.
"I really don't have a sense of much at this point," Bosma said. "No communication from the Democrats as to their intentions."
Bauer said his party had lawyers in Indianapolis and Washington drafting a revised proposal for a statewide referendum on the Republican-backed bill, which bans contracts between companies and labor unions that impose mandatory representation fees on nonmembers.
Debate on that proposal and other possible amendments to the bill had been expected to start Tuesday, but Democrats stalled action after receiving a review by lawyers for the state's nonpartisan Legislative Services Agency. The review found that the Indiana Constitution "does not include a referendum option" for enactment of laws.
Senate President Pro Tem David Long, R-Fort Wayne, said House Democrats are giving flimsy excuses for their boycott and that he agreed that the state constitution doesn't allow statewide voter referendums except on constitutional amendments.
"A simple legal analysis by a law student could have figured that out in no time," Long said. "Read your Constitution, it's in black and white."
House Democratic leaders maintain that the constitutional question is being used as a defense by wavering Republicans for voting against the referendum proposal.
"We're eliminating the excuse," said Rep. Scott Pelath, D-Michigan City.
Long said the Senate — where Republicans hold a commanding 37-13 majority — could start debating its version of the right-to-work bill next week if the House is unable to act.
Bauer also said he did not expect any court rulings until at least Friday on the legal challenge Democrats have filed over the GOP plan to dock the Democrats' state paychecks to cover $1,000-a-day fines.
State figures show the total pay for Democratic legislators in 2010 ranged from about $50,000 to almost $60,000 for Bauer, who was the House speaker that year.
Republican leaders say they think the fines are legal and will be upheld.
Many of the boycotting Democrats continue taking part in committee meetings held in the Statehouse, but Bosma has turned down an offer from Bauer that Democrats would return to the House to act on bills other than the right-to-work proposal.