CNHI Statehouse Bureau Chief
In a speech with almost no surprises, Indiana Gov. Mitch Daniels used his final State of the State address to boast of past accomplishments, push his already announced legislative agenda, and chastise Democrats for slowing down his fast-tracked right-to-work bill that has created noisy chaos in the Statehouse.
The two-term Republican governor delivered the speech in the House chamber to a joint gathering of Senate and House members, while hundreds of angry protesters outside shouted their opposition to the contentious labor bill, chanting “Daniels is a liar” and “No right-to-work.”
About half the House Democrats boycotted the speech. Democrat State Sen. Tim Skinner of Terre Haute, a vocal critic of Daniels and the right-to-work bill refused to stand when Daniels entered the House, breaking with protocol.
Earlier in the evening, Indiana State Police cordoned off the hallway immediately outside the House chamber, but protesters gathered in other areas of the building produced a steady stream of noise that continued long after Daniels left the podium. House Democrats, who opposed the bill, walked off the House floor moments after Daniels ended his speech.
An Indianapolis television station captured protesters shouting “shame on you,” as Daniels’ wife, first lady Cheri Daniels, left the House chamber and headed toward an elevator.
There was one unexpected piece of news in the speech: Daniels said he wants to use $20 million in state funds to launch a statewide conservation initiative, known as the Bicentennial Nature Trust. He said the money would be used to leverage private dollars “to identify and fund local projects that will safeguard places of beauty for future generations.”
Daniels’ speech came after an eventful day that saw House Democrats walk out – again – after Republicans pushed the right-to-work legislation through a committee hearing that lasted just minutes.
The Republican governor said the labor bill is needed to complete the massive “remodeling project” he started when he first took office in 2005 and opened the state up for more business.
“Because economic opportunity, and building America’s best home for jobs, is the central goal of all we do, every year should include a bold stroke to enhance it,” Daniels said. “This year, the choice of action has become obvious.”
Daniels dismissed critics, including Statehouse Democrats, who said the right-to-work legislation was an attack on unions. The bill, if passed, would prohibit employers from entering into labor agreements that would require all workers to pay union fees or dues.
“I did not come lightly, or quickly, to the stance I take now,” Daniels said. “If this proposal limited in any way the right to organize, I would not support it.”
Daniels said he supported the bill both because he objected to workers forced to pay union dues and because he’s convinced the legislation would bring more jobs into the state.
Daniels borrowed the remodeling metaphor from a letter written in early 1861 by a clerk who’d seen the newly elected Abraham Lincoln in Indianapolis. The letter writer, A.B. Carpenter, said Lincoln would soon be remodeling the federal government.
Carpenter also noted in the letter how fractious the Indiana General Assembly was at that point, describing an incident in which a Democrat lawmaker “slandered and abused” a Republican legislator. The two ended up traveling to Kentucky, armed with bowie knives, to fight a duel.
Daniels said he hoped current-day legislators would keep their disputes in the state and inside the House chamber, “where the people’s business is supposed to be settled.”
The reference was to House Democrats who left the state for five weeks in the 2011 session to kill the right-to-work bill, and who stayed away from the House floor last week to delay action on the 2012 version of it.
Hours before Daniels started his speech, Democrats and labor leaders were lining up to criticize it, alerting the media to post-speech press briefings to poke holes in his presentation.
Those alerts came after a majority of House Democrats stayed off the House floor again on Tuesday. They were protesting a Republican-controlled House committee meeting in which the bill was shoved through in six minutes and with no debate.
While Daniels devoted a significant portion of his speech to right-to-work bill, he also reminded lawmakers of his other legislative priorities.
They include two bills he wants to see passed before the Super Bowl is played next month in Indianapolis: A statewide smoking ban with few exemptions, and a human-trafficking bill that would toughen penalties for people who profit from the commercial sex industry.
Daniels also said he wanted legislators to “empower” the Commission on Higher Education to crack down on public universities engaging in “credit creep” by ramping up the credit hours needed to complete a degree.
He also said he wants to lift the state cap on money that can be given to victims of the deadly Indiana State Fair stage collapse in August; and he wants the legislature to allow a referendum vote for Central Indiana counties that want to raise local taxes to pay for mass transit.
He also wants the legislature to push through some local government reforms, what he called “overdue modernization of our pioneer days structure of local government.”
Daniels wrapped up his speech by pulling out an atomic clock that’s been sitting on his Statehouse desk. It counts down the days, hours, and minutes he has left in office. “It’s there to remind me to use every moment as well as I can to make Indiana a place of greater promise and prosperity.”
Daniels’ last official day in office is Dec. 31.
Maureen Hayden is the Indiana Statehouse bureau chief for CNHI, the parent company of the Tribune-Star. She can be reached at email@example.com