As regular readers know, I posted a critical review of Governor Pence’s “State of the State” address. I certainly wasn’t alone–editorial writers and columnists around the state panned the presentation.
Critics focused particularly on the Governor’s unwillingness to endorse civil rights protections for LGBT Hoosiers, and his declaration that he “would not sign” a bill he considered insufficiently protective of religious liberty. Like most critics of that pronouncement, I assumed that the lack of specifics–the Governor certainly didn’t say what provisions he would or would not accept–was tantamount to a veto threat.
We may be wrong—but not for reasons that are particularly comforting to those on either side of this debate.
Over the past two days, in separate conversations, people with broad political experience observing Indiana government have parsed the Governor’s language and arrived at a different conclusion. They point out that what Pence said was “I will not sign a bill…” He did not say “I will veto a bill.” Under Indiana law, the two are not the same thing.
In Indiana, when the state legislature passes a bill and sends it to the Governor, there are three actions that Governor can take: 1)he can sign the bill, after which it becomes law; 2) he can veto the bill and send it back to lawmakers, who can then sustain or override the veto; or 3) he can allow the bill to become law without his signature.
Politically, as everyone has pointed out, Pence is between a rock and hard place. His reelection prospects are utterly dependent upon the loyalty of his base of “Christian Soldiers.” He cannot afford to lose them, and they will leave at the slightest sign that Pence is softening his stance against equal rights for LGBT Hoosiers (and that would include any statement suggesting that he might allow an expansion of civil rights to become law).
Unfortunately for Pence, the number of these religious warriors is steadily declining, so he also needs significant support from the business wing of the Republican Party— and the business community is virtually unanimous in its support for civil rights expansion.
As the Democrats have pointed out (almost daily), Pence spent some 175 days avoiding taking a position—desperately trying to placate those on either side of the issue.
As one of the lawyers I talked with observed, the “non-position” communicated to the legislature in Pence’s State of the State address had two possible interpretations: 1) please don’t send me anything that will force me to decide what to do; or 2) if you send me a bill, I won’t sign it–but I won’t veto it, either. It will become law without my explicit endorsement.
The carefully noncommittal framing of the Governor’s statement in the State of the State was even more cowardly than it appeared in the moment, because it allows people on both sides to believe that he shares their concerns–that he is “with them.”
Disingenuous as it may have been, however, it gives some small measure of hope to those of us who want to see genuine civil rights protections for LGBT Hoosiers enacted in Indiana.