House Panel Pivotal in Indiana Gay Marriage Debate
Lobbyists on both sides of Indiana’s gay marriage debate have been bombarding a small group of House lawmakers pivotal in deciding the fate of a measure that would codify a same-sex wedding ban as part of the state constitution.
Even before key legislation was formally introduced Thursday, activists were focusing on the 13 members of the House Judiciary Committee, which is scheduled to take up the package on Monday. Volunteers with Freedom Indiana, the umbrella group opposing the amendment have been targeting lawmakers in their home districts for months with phone calls and emails. While workers for religious conservative groups have relied in part on church fliers to get their message out.
That lobbying battle went public this week after amendment supporters bought ads targeting committee members. In the ad, mug shots of the 13 lawmakers flash on screen as a narrator argues that voting against the amendment amounts to silencing the public.
"Seven of these legislators should not stop the people from voting," says the narrator in the spot paid for by Advance America, one of the religious conservative groups supporting the amendment.
State Rep. Eric Turner, R-Cicero, formally started the legislative gears turning when he filed a measure Thursday that would place the state’s existing gay marriage ban in the constitution and also ban civil unions and benefits for same-sex couples. He filed a companion measure legislative leaders are hoping will assuage concerns the amendment is too far-reaching.
Republican legislative leaders paired the proposed amendment with the explanatory legislation as part of an effort to assuage lawmakers who are concerned an amendment would ban other rights for same-sex couple beyond simply marriage. That package is on a fast track through the already-abbreviated 2014 "short session."
One of the key targets, Rep. Dan Leonard, R-Huntington, said he has been pressured since last spring to declare how he will vote. He noted that he began receiving mailers shortly after the 2013 session asking him to declare his position.
He said the most frustrating part was having activists put words in his mouth.
"One of the things I have found in being undecided on how to vote on this issue right now - and I have not declared whether I am in favor of it or opposed to it - I find myself being cast as I am opposed to it," he said. "And from that standpoint, I am not very happy about it."
Another targeted member, Rep. Jud McMillin, R-Brookville, said he’s been contacted by both sides but is more focused on other issues.
Some members have toughened against lobbying on divisive issues after years of high-profile fights, he said. McMillin was elected in Nov. 2010, since then he has dealt with a sweeping education overhaul in 2011, the right-to-work labor battle in 2012 and the budget battles of the most recent session.
"It’s just something that you learn to deal with," he said. "Is there pressure out there from both sides? Yeah, there is. But we learn to deal with it."
McMillin said he plans to vote in favor of the amendment.
Eric Miller, executive director of Advance America, said he plans to advertise votes by each lawmaker, from the committee to the full chamber.
"All through the process we’re going to be educating people about what’s going on, how their representative or senator votes," he said. He added that he’s confident the amendment will pass the committee and the House.
Advertising legislative votes is hardly a new tactic among activists at all levels of government. Interest groups have been issuing "report cards" scoring lawmakers for decades, but Miller has deep roots inside the Statehouse and Indiana has a strong base of conservative voters.
House Speaker Brian Bosma, R-Indianapolis, cautioned that pressure tactics can occasionally boomerang if groups aren’t careful. He pointed to Republican Gov. Mike Pence’s troubles lobbying for a proposed income tax cut. After House Republicans passed a budget without the governor’s tax cut, Pence supporters began airing ads blasting House Republicans.
"I don’t think necessarily television ads during the legislative session are an effective means to change someone’s opinion. Particularly on an issue like this," he said. "We saw something much more intense last year on tax policy and, if anything, that effort, I think, made the sides less likely to come together because of some of the things that were said."