— If boycotting Democrats return from Illinois soon, Indiana's legislative session can continue and Gov. Mitch Daniels can shepherd much of his agenda through the Republican-dominated General Assembly.

But what if they don't?

This week will be lost if the minority Democrats, whose absence has frozen the Indiana House of Representatives without a quorum, are not back by Wednesday.

The Big Ten men's college basketball tournament starts Thursday in Indianapolis, which means many Republican legislators will be booted from their hotels for the weekend because sports fans booked those rooms well in advance.

Rep. Patrick Bauer of South Bend, the highest-ranking of the missing Democrats, told reporters that Democrats will not be back in Indianapolis on Monday. A return at any time in the coming week sounded unlikely in an e-mail he sent to supporters.

"If we go home now and allow the Republicans to attack workers' rights with impunity, Indiana families will suffer," he wrote. "I don't plan to go home for good unless I'm confident that the rights of Hoosier families can be protected."

That means the earliest the Indiana House might be expected to get back to business is March 14 — more than two weeks after the Senate was due to receive all bills passed by the House, and the House was supposed to start work on bills passed by the Senate.

That would give the General Assembly just seven business weeks to pass a budget, redraw the state's legislative and congressional districts, tackle Daniels' package of education reforms and more before the Indiana Constitution's mandated adjournment date of April 29.

And that, it appears, is now the best-case scenario, at least for Republicans.

Republican House Speaker Brian Bosma told WFYI Indianapolis last week that soon, legislative leaders will have to consider pulling the plug on this year's regular session and instead trying to complete their work in a special session.

Doing so, he said, would not be preferable, because it would mean undoing progress on hundreds of bills that have advanced so far. But without House Democrats, the only bills that can win passage are the bills the House already passed and the Senate approves in the exact same form.

"This is really an unprecedented move, when a minority group of legislators have left the state and say they're not coming back," Bosma said. "We will have to pick the pieces up. The governor said if we can't, we'll be in special session until New Year's. I support him wholeheartedly in that effort."

Most pressing is the budget, because state government would shut down July 1 if Indiana's two-year spending plan expires without a new one in place.

Democrats and Republicans have agreed that the state has about $28 billion to spend in the next biennial budget period including about $12.4 billion on K-12 education — and neither side has proposed tax increases.

And while Republican lawmakers want to eliminate some budgetary mechanisms that for years have directed dollars away from growing suburban schools and toward shrinking urban and rural schools, Democratic lawmakers say it is wrong to reduce any school's funding.

The other "must-do" item is redistricting. Each decade, after the U.S. Census results are issued, it's up to state lawmakers to update the House, Senate and congressional district maps.

Because census results were recently issued and were being plugged into the state's map-making computer program, lawmakers are just now able to start work on redistricting.

History suggests it might cause more bickering in the coming weeks and months. In the past, the process has been so contentious that during the last two redistricting years — 1991 and 2001 — it triggered boycotts.

"I think that, as an option, what might be nice is if the leadership in the House and Senate would just agree for the immediate future to come back to work on those two issues so that we get done at least what we are lawfully required to do," Sen. Vaneta Becker, R-Evansville, said on "Lawmakers" on WNIN-PBS9 this week.

"And then if the other issues cannot be resolved — these other issues are not as critical as the budget and redistricting."

Democrats say their boycott is primarily motivated by a handful of key labor and education bills.

One of those labor bills would end project labor agreements, which require that workers on public contracts receive union wages. Another would stop local governments from setting a higher "common construction wage," or minimum wage, than the state's.

They object to Daniels' plan to offer vouchers allowing families to spend public dollars on private school tuition. Republicans, though, plan to offer amendments limiting that program to families earning less than $60,000 per year, and cap its numbers in the first two years. Democrats said that's a start.

They also object to Daniels' proposal to limit teachers' collective bargaining rights to wages and benefits — a move that would keep teachers' unions from having a say on school districts' educational policies, as well as who is hired and fired.

Those two are key portions of Daniels' education reform agenda, which also involves revamping teacher evaluations and expanding the number of charter schools from the 60 currently in the state.

While Becker called those issues less critical, Daniels has said they are at the very forefront of his agenda, next to passing a structurally balanced budget without a tax increase.

He has said he is willing to call special sessions "from now until New Year's" to make sure those issues are dealt with. Political observers say governors typically have the advantage in special sessions because the scope of those sessions is narrowed.

Bosma, meanwhile, has said the House calendar will be the same the day the Democrats return — whenever that happens — as it was Feb. 22, the day they left.

"This one certainly is not over yet," said Ed Feigenbaum, a longtime political observer who is publisher of Indiana Legislative Insight.

"We don't know how long it's going to go, how deep the resentment will be, where public support will line up on this, and whether it will totally destroy the leadership of the respective parties."

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