In September 1908, one of the biggest brawls around took place inside the Statehouse.
The fight, during a special session of the Legislature, focused on whether citizens of Indiana’s counties should have the right
to ban liquor traffic within
Reporters described the atmosphere as “circus-like,” with galleries packed by hooting opponents. Police were called at one point to clear a crowd of “dry” advocates who’d stormed the House chamber.
Alcohol dominated the legislative sessions beginning in 1905, when Republicans controlled the 100-seat House with a supermajority of 82 members. Firmly in control, they began imposing tougher and tougher restrictions on liquor and vice with each passing session.
Then, in 1913, the electorate pushed back, and Democrats won 95 House seats.
House Speaker Brian Bosma has taken to quoting that flip, from 82 seats for Republicans to 95 for Democrats, as a cautionary tale now that he has a super-duper majority of his own.
The Republican from Indianapolis cautioned his 71 caucus members not to get greedy when the Legislature reconvened.
“It’s a human tendency to over-reach,” he said.
Sure, Bosma celebrated after the November election, when Republicans grew their numbers in both the House and Senate (where they now hold 40 of 50 seats). He’s also been tempering the glee.
“The larger the majority, the more caution is needed,” he said in a recent interview in his Statehouse office.
His arm was in a sling, recovering from shoulder surgery, but he reached for a favorite framed quote that described his job as “herding cats.” It was his way of saying, despite considerable power as gatekeeper of what goes on the House Republican priority list, he doesn’t have all his members — or their supporters — on a leash.
“Starry-eyed” is how he described the feeling that comes with big legislative numbers. And it’s not just legislators, he said.
Lobbyists and lawmakers both have lined up at his door, clamoring for attention and arguing now is the time for whatever measure has long been on their list.
His response generally has been: “Caution is a good word.”
“Over-reach” is in the eye of the beholder. For Democrats, Republicans already have over-reached in the time they’ve controlled both chambers and the governor’s office: They’ve created the largest private school voucher program in the nation, redrawn congressional and legislative maps to favor their party for years to come and passed historic abortion restrictions, among other pieces of social legislation.
Bosma isn’t saying exactly what “over-reach” means this year, since he still has to review an estimated 1,000 bills that will be filed in the early days of the session. But he’s given strong clues about his priorities, which include overhauling the state’s school funding formula, which earmarks more money for poor students, and beefing up the Legislature’s minimalist ethics rules.
Likely to be on the list of ideas that over-reach: Major tax changes sought by Republican Gov. Mike Pence that would cut into state and local revenues, as well as legislation that further relaxes Indiana’s gun laws, already loosened in recent years. There will be more.
Bosma has been in the Legislature since 1986 and in leadership roles since 1994. As his party’s numbers have waxed, waned then waxed again, he’s been both the minority and majority leader. The latter is the harder job, he said.
“When you’re the minority, you can point out every little error the other side makes,” he said. “But when you’re the majority, then the supermajority, then an even larger supermajority, your responsibility to lead changes. You can’t just toss out a bomb and ignore the results.”
Maureen Hayden is statehouse bureau chief for CNHI newspapers. Send comments to email@example.com.