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Speaker’s power play


Legislative leaders have various tools to achieve a desired result. For Indiana House Democrats in 2011, it was a five-week walkout to deny the Republican majority the quorum needed to pass anti-labor legislation. For House Speaker Brian Bosma this week, it was a committee reassignment to move the same-sex marriage resolution before lawmakers more likely to support it.

The speaker said he reassigned the bill to the Elections Committee at the request of GOP caucus members who want to vote on it in the full House. The Election Committee approved it Wednesday by a 9-3 vote.

The bill was stalled in the Judiciary Committee by a handful of Republican committee members, including Huntington Republican Dan Leonard, who refused to tell how they would vote in advance. Committee Chairman Greg Steuerwald couldn’t call for a vote because he didn’t know how it would come out.

Another tool Bosma had available was the authority to replace the recalcitrant committee members, but that would have looked even more heavy handed than a total committee switch. As it is, an Indianapolis Star columnist called his maneuver a “stomach-churning display of misplaced power, pride and pigheadedness.”

But Bosma’s move was within his authority as House leader. His own constituents might wonder whether his tactic lives up to an Organization Day promise to treat the same-sex marriage resolution “like any other bill,” but all Indiana voters should consider larger questions raised:

•Did the committee move subvert the political process with an end run around opponents who, playing by the rules Bosma originally set down, might have successfully convinced Judiciary Committee members that a constitutional ban on same-sex marriage was wrong or unnecessary?

•How many more special accommodations will House Joint Resolution 3 require? It already has been repackaged from its original form of HJR 6 and has the distinction of a companion piece of legislation, House Bill 1153, to clarify its controversial second sentence, which would prohibit civil unions.

•Who is best served by moving the measure for a full House vote? Is it the GOP caucus or individual members who need political cover as the Feb. 7 primary filing deadline approaches? On the House floor, Republicans who fear election challenges can vote to protect their re-election prospects; Republicans in safe districts can vote yes and tell the HJR 3 opponents among their constituents that they oppose it personally but want the people to decide.

•What does it say about a proposed amendment to the Indiana Constitution – the state’s most important document – that it requires special handling to accommodate its passage? Shouldn’t a measure that takes the unprecedented step of depriving certain Hoosiers of their rights with constitutional language advance with the overwhelming support of the legislature?

•More important, should any measure that deprives a group of its rights be subject to a vote of citizens? Under that approach, a state with more Democrats than Republicans could vote to ban the GOP, or vice-versa; whites, theoretically, could vote to re-enslave blacks. Our system of government is specifically designed to protect the minority from the rule of the majority. Bosma and his allies don’t seem to get that.

This week’s HJR 3 drama makes it appear even more likely that Indiana voters will be asked to decide the fate of the proposed amendment in a referendum.

They should consider now why it’s necessary to amend the constitution when state law already bans same-sex marriage and when business and university leaders warn that a constitutional ban will discourage the best and brightest employees from locating here.