INDIANAPOLIS — House Democrats who have been boycotting the session to block a contentious right-to-work bill could return Monday to begin debating the measure, although disagreement over whether a statewide referendum on the issue would be constitutional might delay a vote.
The bill would ban contracts between companies and labor unions that force nonmembers to pay dues. Democrats want to put the issue to a statewide vote, while Republicans say the matter should be decided by the Legislature.
The state constitution requires all laws to be enacted by the Legislature. To get around this, Democrats have proposed an amendment to the bill that would have the law take effect the day before the Nov. 6 election and then allowing it to expire Nov. 7 if voters didn't endorse it.
Democratic leader Patrick Bauer pressed during a tense 10-minute exchange Friday for an agreement that a referendum held under those terms wouldn't be regarded as unconstitutional, but Republican Speaker Brian Bosma wouldn't provide that assurance, saying it would be something for courts to decide.
"I honestly don't know and I don't really don't care," Bosma told reporters afterward. "It's not our job here to determine the constitutionality of something before we vote on it."
Most House Democrats skipped Friday's House session, leaving it with too few members present to conduct business for the seventh of 12 days Bosma has tried to gavel it into order this session. Bauer said they were ready to be there Monday, but he couldn't guarantee they would stay on the floor for action on the right-to-work bill. That depended on how the referendum issue was treated, he said.
"We don't the argument to be the constitution," he said. "We want the argument to be that they don't think the people should have a vote."
Supporters claim the bill will make the state more attractive to businesses, while opponents maintain is a political attack to weaken unions.
Democrats have complained that they needed time to draft a revised referendum proposal after legislative lawyers determined this week that the state constitution doesn't allow referendums to enact laws. Bauer said Democrats would work over the weekend to address questions about the legality of their quest for a statewide vote.
Majority Republicans voted for a third straight day to impose $1,000-a-day fines on the boycotting Democrats, even though a Marion County judge issued an order Thursday blocking those fines from being deducted from the state paychecks of boycotters who have sued.
The Senate, meanwhile, voted 36-14 nearly along party lines Friday against the referendum proposal.
Sen. Karen Tallian, D-Portage, compared it to referendums that allowed individual counties to opt out of a 1990s casino law, while Sen. Brandt Hershman, R-Lafayette, argued that the idea was "deeply constitutionally suspect."
Sen. Vaneta Becker of Evansville was the only Republican to support the referendum proposal.
A dozen Republican senators did support an amendment proposed by Sen. Brent Waltz, R-Greenwood, that would have exempted construction unions from the right-to-work bill. Waltz argued that those types of jobs are unique and that the law would still cover 85 percent of those working under union contracts.
But that proposal was defeated 38-12, with all 13 Democratic senators voting against it.
A few dozen union protesters jeered Republicans and applauded Democrats as they watched the debate from the hallway outside the Senate chamber.
Senate Minority Leader Vi Simpson, D-Bloomington, argued that opinion polls and economic-development statistics cited by Republican leaders should lead them to favor a voter referendum.
"If everybody's so in favor of this and it's going to be the save-all for the economy of Indiana, then what are you afraid of?" Simpson said.