4 posts

The Best Signs from Austin Stand with Texas Women Event

Crowds estimated between 5000 (Planned Parenthood) and 10,000 (MoveOn.Org) gathered Monday on the South Side of the Capitol Building in Austin, TX to Stand With Texas Women. Dressed in burnt orange, the unruly mob filled the lawn for several hours listening to politicians, musicians, clergy, and leaders of the Pro-Choice movement.

A broad range of people attended the rally — more women than men; lots of children and infants; several pregnant women; fewer people of color than I hoped. Contrary to reports from Republicans, the protesters were from Texas. People came from all over the state, based on conversations with those standing around us, in bus and car loads. There was a positive, energized vibe despite the heightened police presence.  The rally organizers planned thoughtfully, providing kid-friendly areas, free cold water, and for a short time, electronic charging stations. Certainly the unusually comfortable weather and cool breezes helped.

As expected, the signs were witty, pointed, crass, and spot-on. Continue reading

Exclusive: Interview with Boycotting Indiana Rep. Terri Austin

Today, Crasstalk is thrilled to present a conversation with Indiana Democratic Representative Terri Austin (IN-37).  Rep. Austin was one of two Democratic legislators who remained at the Statehouse to object to any legislative business occurring without a quorum.  A leading voice in education, mass transit and transportation, Rep. Austin has spent the last two weeks traveling back and forth from the Indiana Statehouse to Urbana, Illinois, where the remaining Democratic caucus members have been since the standoff began.

As they enter their third week of boycotting the Indiana House of Representatives, Indiana Democratic legislators are facing enormous pressure from all sides.  On one side, there are calls for them to come to the Legislature and go back to work.  On the other, countless Hoosier workers and teachers who have rallied day after day, numbering in the thousands each time, to show their support for the Democrats’ stand.  What is happening in Indiana is different than what is occurring in Ohio and Wisconsin. However, there are also common themes threaded through each states’ stand off.  For many, the events in Indiana and across the country represent no less than a battle for the future of the American working class.  Are unions a thing of the past?  Do public employees deserve collective bargaining?  These are just a few of the questions raised by this situation.

Indiana Democrats released the following statement about the boycott.

On Tuesday, February 22, 2011, House Democrats used their constitutional obligation to prevent quorum on the House floor to stop a radical agenda that was a direct attack on working Hoosiers and our public schools. We left for Illinois to give the thousands of Hoosier workers, teachers, and families a real voice at the State House. Our decision was to send a message to Republicans that we were serious about our concerns. Some say we should come back and do our job. We believe that fighting on behalf of thousands of Hoosier students, workers, and families is our job. To sit in the chamber and simply vote no was not enough.

Source: Indiana State Legislature

Before focusing on the substance of why Democratic legislators left the state, I want to ask you about the tactic of walking out or boycotting the legislature.  Some have suggested that this is not an appropriate way for a minority party to block legislation.  How do you respond to this criticism?

Rep. Austin:

I have great respect for our legislative institution and its rules.  The tactic of quorum-busting—causing a quorum to be prevented from meeting—has been used in legislative bodies by minorities seeking to block the adoption of some measure they oppose. Quorum-busting has been used for centuries. For instance, during his time in the state legislature, Abraham Lincoln, leapt out of a first story window (the doors of the Capitol had been locked to prevent legislators from fleeing) in a failed attempt to prevent a quorum from being present.
To remain out of the House chamber should be used rarely and done only after careful consideration.  We know that Speaker Bosma and other House Republicans understand this, because when in the minority, they used this Constitutionally-granted ability in 2001 and 2004.

Both Republican and Democratic members have participated in walkouts that have stopped legislative action.  However, in the recent past, members have not left the state.  Why did the Democrats feel they needed to leave the state?

Rep. Austin:

The decision to leave the state was made after careful deliberation.  There was significant concern that the Speaker of the House or the Governor would use the powers of arrest to compel attendance.  The only way to ensure that this would not happen was to relocate to a region where the powers of arrest were not recognized.  It also gave us uninterrupted time to review, discuss and debate the various pieces of legislation we were concerned about and to develop proposed amendments to the bills.  We believe that the legislature works best when a spirit of bipartisanship and compromise is present.

Indiana House members initially left the state to stop Right to Work legislation from passing.  Why is the Democratic Caucus opposed to RtW?

Rep. Austin:

The decision to break a quorum was not just about Right To Work.  Over the last couple of weeks the barrage of controversial and critical bills, put on the calendar at the last minute, hampered the ability of legislators and the public to understand the details of these bills much less consider their long-term consequences.   Let me give you an example of what I mean.

The RTW bill was scheduled on the very last morning for committee hearings.  The hearing was held in less than ideal conditions.  There were hundreds of people who traveled to the statehouse to testify regarding the bill.  Many could not even hear the testimony because the hearing room only held about 50 people.  Others were forced to stand outside in the hallway or throughout the building.  92 people who signed up to testify were not given an opportunity to testify.

It is important to note that there was conflicting testimony on the positive impact of RtW legislation in other states.  Dr. Gordon Lafer, an Associate Professor at the University of Oregon indicated that all of the most recent scientific studies show that RTW has zero impact on job growth.  In fact, only one state, Oklahoma, has adopted Right To Work over the past 25 years.  One problem with basing public policy decisions on what happened in 1970 and 1980 is that we live in a fundamentally different economy today.

Something this important should not be determined in a 90 minute committee hearing where Hoosiers were denied an opportunity to hear the testimony or offer their thoughts and opinions as citizens.

I think you can see from this example and news reports of the session that legislators and the public were not fully educated on several bills that were moving like a runaway freight train.  Although the “Right to Work” (RTW) bill has been depicted as the primary reason for the “time out”, it was a whole list of concerns.  This time out has given the public and legislators the time to learn about the content of these bills.  As can be noted by the thousands of citizens who have demonstrated at the statehouse and rallied in their communities, the public is becoming more aware of these issues, and they are speaking up.  The focus of this time-out should not be the absence of the House members but the potentially damaging impact of these bills.

Almost immediately after the Democrats left, Republican leaders pledged not to advance the RTW legislation. But, the Democrats did not come back. Why?

Indiana State Democrats



Rep. Austin:

As explained above, there were other pieces of legislation that would have had a drastic impact on Hoosier families and children attending public schools.  Democrats’ decision to remain out of the statehouse allows time for the bills to be fully examined, amendments developed, the public to be informed and their voices to be heard.  The Democrats have consistently expressed a desire to work in a spirit of compromise and negotiation.  Efforts to do just that have been rebuked and refused by the House leadership.  Republicans have said there is no negotiating, their agenda will pass.  Their rhetoric and unwillingness to compromise have forced us to fight from Illinois – our only means left to defend the jobs of working people in Indiana and the education of Hoosier children.

This session began with a great hope of working with our colleagues across the aisle to develop a plan for job creation, move our public schools to the front of the class and draft a fiscally responsible state budget.  Speaker Bosma started this session saying it was a “new day” in the House chamber, and he was going to seek a new level of bi-partisanship.   Unfortunately, we’ve seen the complete opposite.  This session has seen only 29 percent of the votes be cast in a bipartisan manner.  Normally, 80-90 percent of the votes in a session are bipartisan.

Please understand that House Democrats did not cross our arms and say “no” to everything that was proposed by our Republican colleagues.  Even if we disagreed on a bill, positive and compromising alternatives were offered to improve and/or moderate the consequences if we felt they were harmful to our districts and our constituents.   Most times those ideas, offered in good faith, were summarily dismissed   Our kids’ education and our families’ wages shouldn’t be the victim of partisanship.  Hoosier families deserve better than that.

Source: Indiana House Democrats Fighting for Families

Do Democrats have a list of specific bills that they want to negotiate on before agreeing to come back?  If so, can you briefly explain what they are?

Rep. Austin:

There is no list of “demands” as has been suggested.  However, several bills impacting public education and the future of the middle class in Indiana are of great concern.  HB 1003 creates a voucher program that sends public tax dollars to private schools for a select number of children.  HB 1479 allows for the immediate state takeover of 212 schools and gives the State Board of Education the authority to appoint a for-profit management company to run the school.  Other legislation impacts individuals’ rights to voluntarily have association dues or fees paid from their paycheck.  Others greatly restrict employees’ ability to work with management regarding areas of mutual concern.  Many of the bills will drive down Hoosier wages and benefits.  Hoosiers already earn only 85 cents on the dollar as compared to the U.S. average.  The Republican proposals have been proven in other states to lower wages by $5,500 a year on average.

These are just some of the bills that many legislators feel will be harmful to their communities.

Are the Democrats asking for specific legislative changes to be agreed to before you will come back or are you asking for an opportunity through open debate and proposed amendments to change them once you do come back?

Rep. Austin:

The Democrats are willing to work with everyone in a spirit of compromise.  Negotiations are never successful when one party or the other draws a line in the sand.  It is important to keep the lines of communication open and for both parties to come to the table with respect and a willingness to listen.

The Crasstalk community includes people from all 50 states.  It seems that the same legislation Indiana Democrats are objecting to is also being proposed in other states, notably Wisconsin and Ohio.  Are Democratic legislators talking across states and coming up with a larger strategy to counteract what seems to be a nationwide Republican effort?

Rep. Austin:

I am not aware that talks with other Democratic legislators are going on to develop a strategy.  I do know that the communications that have taken place are more about supporting each other’s efforts and comparing different pieces of legislation across state lines.

Are you personally concerned about any political fallout from the Democrats’ boycott? Why or why not?

Source: Indiana House Democrats Fighting for Families

Rep. Austin:

At some point, you have to stand up for what you believe in, regardless of the consequences.  I was elected by the people of the district to try and make their lives better and to be their voice in state government.  Many of the pieces of legislation would not have a positive impact on the families and children that I represent.  I believe that Hoosier families are worth fighting for.

Last question. Many people who will read this are not Hoosiers and may have never been to Indiana. As an elected representative of Hoosier residents, what is the one thing you would most like them to know about Indiana?

Rep. Austin:

It’s a wonderful place to grow up and to work.  Yes, we face some challenges but also we have many positives that make us attractive to young people, families and entrepreneurs.  I had the opportunity to travel to Taiwan and Japan several years ago as a part of a state delegation.  When we met with business leaders who talked about why they brought their companies to Indiana, they indicated two things that set us apart: our Hoosier work ethic and the excellent education their children received.  Unfortunately, some leaders forget to tell people the things they are doing well before they tell them why we need to do things differently.

For More Information

Indiana House Democrats Fighting for Hoosier Families Facebook page.

The Hoosier Stand.

Just SIT (Support Indiana Teachers) Facebook page.