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The two Republican lawmakers who represent Adams County in the Indiana General Assembly were given a rude welcome Saturday morning during a town hall meeting at the Decatur public library.
Facing a crowd of more than two dozen local residents — primarily teachers and/or organized labor sympathizers — State Rep. Matt Lehman and State Sen. Travis Holdman were peppered with questions and sharp-edged complaints about the GOP's current legislative agenda. Most of those in attendance voiced various levels of support for Indiana Democrats who effectively have brought the House of Representatives to a standstill for some three weeks by fleeing to Illinois.
Lehman, R-Berne, said if the Democrats return to Indianapolis this week, there is still time to salvage the current legislative session. "But we're running up against deadlines. If they (Democrats) do not return, we're probably looking at a special session" of the General Assembly.
The Berne Republican said the Democrats' walkout "has put democracy on its ear."
"They could be there offering amendments on the floor of the house. We (Republicans) will hear them all. That's how democracy works. But the Democrats need to come to the House floor and fight for what they believe in," he said.
Lehman remains uncertain as to the exact reason Democrats have elected to stay away from Indianapolis, especially after a contentious Right To Work bill was shelved for the current session. "But then we got a list of 11 other issues that they (Democrats) won't discuss," he said. Holdman, R-Markle, said lawmakers are constitutionally required to pass at least two bills during the current session — a budget bill and a redistricting bill to establish new House, Senate and Congressional lines.
"And I think that now you're going to see the largest budget bill in history, because it will contain all the legislation that has been halted to date because of the Democrats' walkout," Holdman said. "My take is that a number of the governor's education reform pieces may get tucked into the budget bill."
The GOP senator said the statehouse "has not been a pleasant place to be" for the past three weeks. "All the cooperation is gone, and the demonstrators (mostly union and teacher sympathizers) are not winning any favors from anybody."
Both Lehman and Holdman said some bills currently in the legislature, particularly those dealing with school vouchers, charter schools, collective bargaining limits for teachers and other education matters, likely will take on a drastically different look in their final form than they now appear. And both lawmakers assured doubters that the Right To Work legislation was dead.
But not everyone in the crowd was convinced.
"Those 'dead' bills could still be resurrected. A lot of this junk can still be added to the budget bill," said retired teacher Rex Hinksey. "I really have no trust in our government."
"You guys have overreached too far," said another audience member. "People are excited now who have never been excited before. This isn't over."
Still another crowd member said, "You guys represent me, and right now I'm ashamed to be a Republican."
Charter schools and efforts to limit the collective bargaining power of teachers were two of the most hotly-debated issues of the morning. When Lehman stated that the majority of residents in his House district support vouchers and charter schools, he was shouted down by catcalls. And when he said there has been "no effort" on the part of Republicans to eliminate collective bargaining by teachers, a chorus of jeers and boos erupted from the crowd.
North Adams teacher Cheryl Hisner objected to recent remarks from Gov. Mitch Daniels which she said made teachers out to be over-paid and pampered public employees.
"Don't tell us we're the privileged elite," Hisner said.
Holdman agreed that some of the rhetoric coming from the administration has been excessive and unnecessary. "I have personally gone to Mitch Daniels and Tony Bennett (state superintendent of public instruction) and told them not to paint teachers with that broad brush."
The two lawmakers repeatedly said that many of the problems facing education statewide do no apply to schools in Adams County. To which Decatur Mayor John Schultz asked, "If there is no problem with our local schools, why don't you accept what we want and represent us? Why do we always have to respond to what is happening in Indianapolis? I'm just asking you guys to listen to what we're saying."
Lehman defended the education reforms, saying, "If it's about kids, it's about all kids — not just our kids."
Holdman said the Department of Education's goal "is to push a lot of this back to local board control."