KOKOMO – If there was a just God of Politics, all that newly elected speaker of the Indiana House of Representatives, Todd Huston, would have to worry about at this time would be how he and his leadership team will craft a budget for the state after a year of upheaval due to the COVID-19 pandemic.  

But the God of Politics is a fickle feller and Speaker Huston has been thrown into the fire on his first time at bat. Mixed metaphors aside, Huston will not only be forced to match income and expenses for a biennial budget in a time where incomes are uncertain and expenses are in unchartered waters, but he will also have to deal with the incredibly sticky wicket of reapportionment, the drawing of legislative districts.

Making Huston’s job a potentially more difficult one is the current uncertain state of affairs on the election front. Currently, Indiana Republicans control 67 of the 100 seats in the Indiana House. The number of Republicans is critical in order to head off some of the potential legislative games that historically came to be the hallmark of Indiana Democrats under Pat Bauer during the bad old days.  

It seems like just a quaint memory now, but close your eyes and you can remember February, 2011, when Democrat Minority Leader Bauer led his wayward band of merry men and women out of the friendly confines of Indiana into their luxury escape at the Comfort Suites Hotel of Urbana, Illinois. Why Illinois do you ask? Because staying in the Hoosier State subjected the hoodlums to arrest by the Indiana State Police and a forced return to the Indiana House chambers.

The cause of the mad escape of the Democrats, in dereliction of their elected duty, was a series of legislative bills that the string-pullers and the bag men of the Democrat Party just couldn’t allow to come to a vote. While Right to Work legislation was the primary catalyst, charter schools, school vouchers and unemployment benefits also added to the Democrat motivation to get out of Dodge while the gettin’ was good.  

In an effort to avoid voting on any of these critical legislative issues, Bauer took his 39-member caucus across state lines. Of course, he would always leave two or three Democrats behind to enable a motion and a second to the motion for quorum calls. In this manner, in February and March, 2011, the Indiana Legislature became paralyzed for five weeks until Speaker Brian Bosma instituted fines against the absent legislators and then, later, took Right to Work off the table and made some modifications to some of the other objectionable legislation.

Life changed significantly for the Democrats in 2012, thanks in large part to the bang-up job done by President Barack Obama, when Indiana Republicans established a supermajority in the Indiana House to match the supermajority in the Indiana Senate.  With 67 Republican representatives, Speaker Bosma was able to affectionately tell Democrats, “Don’t let the swinging door hit you on your way out of the state.” Other than the incessant melodic whining coming from the leftist side of the House chambers, the Democrats wouldn’t be missed if they took their traveling carnival to Urbana again.

In 2018, Republicans received a wake-up call of sorts when they dropped back to 67 representatives, down from a high water mark of 71 Republicans in 2014.  This makes the 2020 General Election of immense importance to Republican legislative dominance. Democrats will tell you that if they win just one more seat from the Republicans, they can once again demand some respect at the State House. Republicans in the know will tell you that the Democrats would have to pick up a net of two seats to completely throw a monkey wrench into the legislative machinery.  

What’s the reason for the different math? Indiana law does require that 67 members be present for the Indiana House to have a quorum.  On that issue, the Democrats’ math is correct. However, the only way to know if you have a quorum is to make a motion for a quorum count and that requires not only a motion, but also a second to the motion.  

Therefore, Republicans could function to operate with 66 delegates or less, if at least two Democrats don’t show up in the chambers. It is a tactic that I’m sure that Speaker Huston would like to avoid during his first trip around the sun. The optics look a little fuzzy and the liberal press would mount their high horses and have a field day on the issue, but it’s like that two iron in your golf bag, you don’t want to use it, but it’s there just in case.

At stake in the 2021 version of the Indiana House will be critical funding issues for education, unemployment and social service agencies starving for cash due to COVID-19.  

But make no mistake about it, the big enchilada of the whole legislative session will be the drawing of legislative district lines in a fair and equitable manner. Republicans will desire that their version of fair and equitable triumph and Democrats will try to hold out for some changes that give them a chance of knocking off a seat or two in the next decade.  Who wins this power struggle will largely come down to who carries the big stick and in the Indiana House, the big stick is 67 votes or maybe 66.

As of this writing, I’m hearing that three or four Republican representatives have got close elections on their hands and that there are three Democrat House seats that are at risk.  

The outcomes of just a handful of contests will decide whether 2021 gets ugly or if the Republicans will be allowed to sort out significant issues without the uninvited participation of the “party of no.” The continued dramatic success of Indiana when viewed against our Midwest peers will depend on the November vote.  

Let’s hope that Speaker Huston gets a break. 

Dunn is the former Howard County Republican chairman.