Why Democrats are finding more success in the Indiana Statehouse this year

Indiana House Todd Huston and Phil GiaQuinta

House Speaker Todd Huston, R-Fishers, and House Minority Leader Phil GiaQuinta, D-Fort Wayne, talk during an event on March 7, 2023. (Credit: Kaitlin Lange)

Key Points
  • As superminorities in the Indiana House and Senate, Democrats can move bills only if Republicans allow them.
  • The last two years have been particularly challenging for Democratic lawmakers.
  • Democrats are finding more success this year, but everyone has different theories on why.

South Bend Fire Chief Carl Buchanon is all but certain it’s too late for him.

Over his 37 years in the department, he’s been exposed to cancer-causing chemicals found in firefighting foam and gear known as PFAS. Multiple former South Bend firefighters have died of cancer, and firefighters are 14% more likely to die of cancer than the general public. 

What Buchanon doesn’t know is how many of the chemicals are flowing through his veins. A bill under consideration by Indiana lawmakers would direct the state to begin testing firefighters. 

“Maybe it’ll help me,” Buchanan said during committee testimony on the bill, “but I’m more concerned with it helping those that are after me.”

House Bill 1219 also amounts to a legislative victory for Democrats, who haven’t been able to say that too often in recent years. 

The Indiana General Assembly is overwhelmingly controlled by Republicans. Not only do they hold the votes, they also decide whether a Democratic bill can even be heard by lawmakers in the first place. And, historically, Indiana supermajorities of both political stripes have tended to exercise that discretion more often than not. 

This year, though, Democrats moved 27 bills in the first half of session. 

That’s more than the last two years — combined.

Rep. Maureen Bauer, D-South Bend, filed legislation to address PFAS last year and the year before, but neither of those bills moved. This year’s House Bill 1219 — which moved through the House and has picked up powerful Republican co-sponsors in the Senate— was her first success. 

“With one party rule in the House, the Senate and the governor, I think it can be easy to only hear one party’s policies or ideas,” said Bauer, who also moved two other bills this year. “But when we come down here I represent Democrats and Republicans alike. I’m reminded of that often.”

(Credit: Brittney Phan for State Affairs)

To be clear, it’s not that Democrats are passing an outsized number of bills. The Democratic-led bills still in play make up less than 8% of the bills that advanced in either chamber during the first leg of session, despite Democrats holding a quarter of all legislative seats. That doesn’t include bills in which Democrats are a secondary author. 

Nor is partisanship dead. Democrats have pushed back against a flood of bills they say would hurt transgender Hoosiers, and no Democrat voted for the House budget which aims to expand school choice vouchers.

The ideological divide on social issues has arguably never been greater in the halls of the Statehouse.

So, why are Republicans allowing Democrats to move more bills this year?

Everyone has their own theory. Maybe Democrats are simply introducing bills with bipartisan interest. Or maybe it’s a concerted effort to stave off the bitterness now common in Congress and other statehouses. Or maybe House Speaker Todd Huston and President Pro Tempore Rodric Bray have grown comfortable as they’ve collected more years of power. 

Or there’s Huston’s explanation: The state has moved on from the pandemic when how people governed and communicated was different. 

A return to normalcy 

Huston, R-Fishers, was not surprised to learn that Democrats moved more bills this year. He characterized the increase as a return to “normal” times following disruptions driven by the COVID-19 pandemic.

In 2021, House lawmakers gathered in a larger, makeshift space in the Indiana Government Center South building to enable social distancing. They only met once per week at the beginning to reduce contact. The Senate, too, spread out over the two floors of the Senate chamber. 

And just like others around the world, lawmakers weren’t fraternizing as much as they typically would. Taken together, that meant less communication and relationship-building between the caucuses. 

Only 17 Democratic bills made it past a floor vote that year, compared to 27 this year, despite both sessions being longer budget years. 

Perhaps nothing illustrated the tension back in 2021 more than when a verbal fight broke out in the House’s temporary chamber after Republican lawmakers booed Black Democratic lawmakers who called a bill discriminatory during floor debate. 

At one point, two lawmakers had to be physically separated just outside of the chamber. All 14 Black lawmakers in the Statehouse were Democrats. 

By 2022, lawmakers had stopped sitting six feet apart, but Huston said the relationships between lawmakers hadn’t returned to normal yet. There was an ideological divide on how to handle yet another COVID-19 surge, as some lawmakers wore masks and others declined to get vaccinated. That year, only eight Democrat-led bills survived the first half of session in either chamber. 

“I’ve heard overwhelmingly how much better communication has been on both sides of the aisle, within committees,” Huston said. “This year we’re back to having the normal types of relationships we can have where people can spend time outside the chamber talking to each other in their offices and around the Statehouse.” 

The numbers bear out Huston’s theory. The number of Democratic bills advancing so far this session mostly match those in pre-COVID times. In 2019, 37 bills moved during the first half of the session. 

Other theories

Of course, there are other theories. 

Yes, 2021 was impacted by COVID-19, but it also was Huston’s first session as speaker. In the Senate, Bray was in just his third session as the leader. 

Mike Murphy, a former Republican lawmaker who spent most of his tenure as part of the minority party, emphasized that how many minority party bills get passed depends on the attitudes of leadership. 

“Speaker Huston and President Pro Tem Bray have got their sea legs, so to speak, and got more comfortable as leaders of these two supermajorities,” Murphy said. “Their caucus members have tremendous confidence in them, which gives them the ability to be a little more magnanimous when dealing with the minority party’s ideas.” 

Senate President Pro Tempore Rodric Bray, R-Martinsville, answers questions at a press conference following the 2023 State of the State Address on Jan. 10, 2023, at the Indiana Statehouse.
(Credit: Ronni Moore)

To Murphy’s point: Huston and Bray both said they tell committee chairs to take testimony on the best bills, regardless of who wrote them. 

Multiple people interviewed by State Affairs agreed that Indiana legislative leaders do not want to see their chambers devolve into the bitterness gripping Congress and other statehouses. And a majority of Americans want government officials to work with those across the aisle, multiple polls have shown, even if that’s not necessarily how people vote. 

“I take some pride in the fact that while we’re a supermajority, we still want the other side of the party at the table,” Bray told State Affairs, “and candidly they intend to be there and add value.”

Bipartisan bills

Andy Downs, emeritus associate professor of political science at Purdue University Fort Wayne, has a more simple suggestion: Democrats are carrying bills that have bipartisan interest this year. 

“Democrats have managed to identify issues that cut across normal partisan divides,” Downs said, “and in doing so have managed to find less resistance.” 

Some could be lifesaving. Aside from the PFAS legislation, Democrats championed a bill focused on decreasing fatal car crashes. 

Another bill Bauer authored seeks to close loopholes in Indiana’s child seduction law so the criminal charge applies to youth sports coaches who are not employed by schools. It passed the House and already received a hearing and committee vote on the Senate side, too. 

Rep. Maureen Bauer, D-South Bend (Credit: Indiana House Democrats)

“I think it’s hard to ignore something like that as a chair,” Bauer said. “At a time when it might seem like we don’t have common ground, we can see an area where we can come together and pass bills out unanimously.”

Ironically, having a supermajority actually better enables Republican leaders to support Democratic bills, according to insiders and experts. If the margins were closer, Republicans wouldn’t be motivated to help any Democrats, particularly if it could help a Democrat hang on to a seat.

This year, even Democrats from some of the state’s most competitive districts, such as Rep. Victoria Garcia Wilburn, moved legislation. 

Garcia Wilburn, a freshman who won a competitive Hamilton County district by just 1 percentage point in 2022, pushed a bill through the House that seeks to improve police officers’ mental health and prevent suicide. 

Likewise, Rep. Mitch Gore, a Democrat from the southeast side of Indianapolis, was able to advance a gun bill, a surprising feat for any Democrat, let alone one in a more competitive district. 

“There’s no how-to book to get a bill passed out there,” House Minority Leader Phil GiaQuinta said. “We try to be pragmatic problem solvers, and on top of that, I think our members do a really good job of forming relationships with chairs.” 

Holcomb and Democrats are on the same page

The other strange phenomenon that could be helping Democrats is that Gov. Eric Holcomb included items in his 2023 legislative agenda that were historically championed by Democrats. One example: Holcomb wants to do away with textbook fees for families of K-12 students. 

He also wants to expand the 21st Century Scholars program by automatically enrolling eligible students, an idea Democrats have endorsed for years. The program covers the cost of tuition for students from low-income families at many Indiana colleges and universities.

When some parents begin wondering how their high school students will afford college, it’s already too late because the program requires families to apply while the kids are in eighth grade. 

Rep. Earl Harris Jr, D-East Chicago (Credit: Indiana House Democrats)

State Rep. Earl Harris, Jr., D-East Chicago, has been pursuing a legislative fix for at least a couple years. In his pitches to other lawmakers, Harris has talked about how the bill would enable families to overcome a costly barrier to send their children to college.

But, he notes, the state of Indiana also would benefit from a workforce that is increasingly educated. The latter point is of particular interest to a Republican supermajority seeking to address a workforce shortage across several industries in Indiana. 

"You mention workforce," Harris told State Affairs, "and pretty much everyone's ears are going to perk up." 

This year his bill is finding important allies, including the Republican chairs of the House and Senate education committees. 

It is also fortunate, he said, that Holcomb’s legislative agenda sought to expand automatic enrollment in the program. The two discussed his bill when the Indiana Black Legislative Caucus met with the governor on Feb. 14. 

Typically lawmakers from the same party as the governor carry his priority bills. But no Republican filed legislation related to automatic enrollment this year, so if Republican chairs wanted to advance that part of Holcomb’s agenda, they needed to turn to a Democrat.

“Sometimes,” Harris said, “it’s just great timing.” 

Contact Kaitlin Lange on Twitter @kaitlin_lange or email her at [email protected]

Contact Ryan Martin on Twitter, Facebook, Instagram, LinkedIn, or at [email protected].

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Header image: House Speaker Todd Huston, R-Fishers, and House Minority Leader Phil GiaQuinta, D-Fort Wayne, talk during an event on March 7, 2023. (Credit: Kaitlin Lange)

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