TOM DAVIES

Associated Press

INDIANAPOLIS (AP) - More than quarter of the Indiana House Democrats who unsuccessfully fought passage of the state's new right-to-work law won't try for re-election this year, further boosting the chances of Republicans strengthening their hold on the chamber.

The Republican chairman of the House's budget-writing committee, Jeff Espich of Uniondale, also announced his retirement on Friday, which was the deadline for candidates to file for May's primary.

Most of the 12 House Democrats who won't return had announced they'd step down or run for other offices before Friday. One of the last to decide was Rep. Chet Dobis of Merrillville, who is ending a 42-year legislative career rather than run against fellow Democrat Vernon Smith of Gary after majority Republicans put their homes in the same election district during last year's redistricting.

Democrats controlled the House for 16 of the previous 20 years before Republicans gained a 60-40 majority in the 2010 election and put many Democrats in tougher districts.

John Ketzenberger, president of the nonpartisan Indiana Fiscal Policy Institute, said he was surprised by the scope of the Democratic exodus and that it could be many years before Democrats have a chance to regain control of the House.

"I don't think you'd see nearly the amount of turnover if the margin were close," Ketzenberger said. "A lot of them aren't used to life in the minority so there is some of that, too"

Republicans have already signaled that they plan to use last year's five-week boycott and this year's shorter walkouts by House Democrats over the right-to-work proposal in campaigns against vulnerable legislators. On Feb. 1, Republican Gov. Mitch Daniels signed the bill that made Indiana the 23rd state to ban contracts between companies and labor unions requiring employees to pay union representation fees.

Some Democrats who aren't running again have decried the increasing partisanship in the Legislature as factors in their decisions.

House Democratic leader Patrick Bauer attributed many of the retirements to the GOP redistricting, and said Democratic legislators and candidates could successfully campaign on the party's fight against the right-to-work bill and other Republican-backed initiatives such as the private school voucher program passed last year.

"Often the party that gets total control goes too far," Bauer said. "There's no question that Republicans have gone way further than even their supporters thought they would.

Seven House Republicans aren't running again, but they are mostly from solidly GOP districts. All 19 Republicans who won their first terms in the 2010 GOP sweep are seeking new terms.

The most prominent Republican who won't return to the Legislature next year is Espich, the House Ways and Means committee chairman, ending a legislative career that began in 1972. Espich had said for months he intended to run again even though fellow Republicans put his northeastern Indiana home into the same House district with Rep. Dan Leonard of Huntington, who filed earlier for May's GOP primary.

Espich has been the top Republican on the House Ways and Means Committee since the 1990s.

"I have worked hard and tried to lead well," Espich said in a letter to The Journal Gazette of Fort Wayne. "I hope I have succeeded in the minds and hearts of my constituents."

During last year's state budget debate, Espich oversaw changes in the distribution of education funds so the state only pays school districts for students who are actually enrolled, eliminating the extra cash that dwindling districts had long received to help ease their financial losses after students leave. The previous system often had led to shrinking urban and rural districts receiving higher funding per student and fast-growing suburban districts getting lower amounts.

Ketzenberger said that Espich had advocated many years for the funding system revamp.

"It fundamentally changes the way the schools receive their money from the state, so that it is based almost entirely on where the students are rather as opposed to the costs of the school districts," Ketzenberger said. "He's always been part of that vanguard and was really instrumental in getting it passed."

Only two of the 25 state senators facing re-election this year are retiring. Republicans have a commanding 37-13 majority in the Senate, which they've controlled continuously since the 1970s.

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