INDIANAPOLIS (AP) — On a Sunday afternoon in April, during a long drive to Indianapolis from her home in northeastern Indiana, state Rep. Rebecca Kubacki found out why it's been so hard to bring day care reform to Indiana.
As Kubacki headed back to work for the final days of the 2013 legislative session, her phone rang. And rang again. Soon, the ringing wouldn't stop.
Call after call came from people complaining about the child care legislation she was shepherding through the Indiana House of Representatives. The calls had come from nowhere and, to her amazement, each person got around to using the same catch-phrase: "Kill that bill."
It was as if they had learned it that morning in church.
As the miles ticked away and the phone kept ringing, Kubacki, a Republican from Syracuse who considers herself a conservative, began to worry about her reform efforts. "OK," she thought, "this could really go south fast."
Indeed, that has been the history of day care reform in Indiana. Bill after bill has gone down to defeat even as other states — conservative strongholds such as Texas, Oklahoma and Alabama — have adopted rules to improve the quality of day care centers and preschools. Indiana remains one of 10 states that exempt churches from most of the rules designed to ensure child safety in such centers.
If you ask lawmakers and child advocates why that is, many point to one man: Eric Miller, the man who launched a phone campaign with Kubacki as a key target.
To his followers, Miller is a man of God, even a missionary, who has the air of a preacher and a lawyer's political savvy. He's a man who stands up for things they value: unborn children and heterosexual marriages, low taxes and less government, private schools, home schools, churches.
Miller and his supporters see the issue in strict church-state terms. They say regulation of church day cares is a threat to the First Amendment guarantee of the free exercise of religion. They believe that if the heavy hand of government is allowed to regulate church day cares, the next step the state may take is to try to regulate churches themselves.
To his detractors, Miller is a political operator who twists arms behind the scenes and distorts the truth publicly, someone prone to scare tactics that are accompanied by donation requests. More important, they see him as a big reason why unlicensed Indiana day cares operate with so few safeguards in place.
Supporters of reform — a coalition of legislators unusual for its bipartisanship — acknowledge that there are ministry day cares that offer high-quality care. But they note that others simply do not. And the gaps in the law encourage shady operators to seek ministry exemptions. They argue that Indiana should require more of all operations that care for children, particularly when those places are paid with taxpayer subsidies.
Miller, who declined to be interviewed for this story, has been a force of nature in Indiana politics since 1980, when he founded what grew into a network of churches, businesses and individuals focused on conservative issues — an organization known as Advance America.
The phone campaign that bombarded Kubacki, observers tell The Indianapolis Star (http://indy.st/1bQFLsM ), was classic Miller — gloves off, pressure politics. Miller also has shown repeatedly he can convene people by the busloads for raucous Statehouse rallies. But, this time, it set the stage for an unlikely clash that pitted a Republican against Republicans, a conservative against conservatives. It exposed raw nerves rarely seen in the corridors of the Statehouse. And it exposed the politics of day care.
The need to change Indiana's day care system became clear to Sen. Travis Holdman, R-Markle, two years ago. He and other lawmakers toured several Indiana day cares and found some appalling conditions.
At one ministry called "Little Miracles," the kitchen floor was sticky and speckled with mouse feces. Food was left to warm unattended on a stove. Two workers looked after 56 children.
"They were absolutely deplorable conditions," Holdman said.
Like Miller, Holdman is a Republican, a staunch conservative and a member of an evangelical Christian church. In fact, Holdman oversees his church's finances. The last thing he wanted was to bury churches under burdensome regulation. But, as he had seen for himself, the differences between centers run well and those run poorly were astounding.
Ministry day cares were exempt from most basic rules — such as having staff trained in first aid; keeping dangerous items such as poisonous chemicals, medicines and guns out of a child's reach; and keeping children under adult supervision at all times. Most important to child advocates, they weren't required to meet basic guidelines on how many children can be packed into a room.
That's important because, as an Indianapolis Star investigation has found, ministry day cares are prone to crowded conditions, which can increase dangers for children.
The day care tours, as well as the 2012 death of a toddler who drowned while in a ministry day care, inspired Holdman and others to act. They concluded that wherever the poor are using taxpayer-funded vouchers to buy child care — even in day cares run by ministries — there should be some common rules for safety.
That put Holdman on a collision course with Miller, whom Holdman had come to view with some suspicion on the day care issue. At a committee hearing, Holdman once talked openly about "the power that Voodoo witch doctors have in many of the villages of Haiti and their power to turn people into zombies." Micah Clark, a prominent conservative activist who gave an account of the meeting on his blog, said Holdman then spoke of the people trying to block new child care regulation.
"He compared our efforts to that of witch doctors who give people a zombie drug," Clark wrote, "because people repeated our concerns about his bill on church daycare regulations."
Miller, 63, grew up the son of a grocer about an hour east of Indianapolis in the town of Rushville. He earned business and law degrees from Indiana University. He mounted a campaign for governor in 2004 but lost in the Republican primary to Mitch Daniels.
In fundamentalist Christian circles, Miller sometimes speaks to congregations, sometimes sits in on their Bible studies. Often, he is referred to as "Brother Miller."
In the corridors of power, Miller is equally adept, sometimes bending the ears of politicians, sometimes scolding them. To lawmakers who stray from the moral choices he sees so clearly, Miller's been known to turn to a higher authority — their pastors, with reports to them that their lawmaking parishioner has fallen away from Miller's straight and narrow path.
When you see him in action, it's clear Miller has something essential for all politicians: connections.
In late April, as the legislative session was winding down, Miller held one of his Statehouse "Family & Freedom Days" where he brings supporters to the capital for an event that's part civics lesson, part sales pitch for Advance America, his grassroots organization.
More than 200 of Miller's supporters filled the Supreme Court chambers. Five lawmakers and two representatives from Gov. Mike Pence's office came by to testify of Advance America's prowess.
The House judiciary chairman, Greg Steuerwald, R-Danville, stopped by. So did Senate education committee chairman Dennis Kruse, R-Auburn. Kruse told Miller's audience that he wanted God's laws and Indiana's laws to match up as much as possible. And he praised Miller's work for churches, home schools and private Christian schools.
Rep. Peggy Mayfield, R-Martinsville, told the crowd Miller was "a great, great resource" whom she often consults before voting. Chris Crabtree, one of two Pence aides who stopped by, said Miller was the best tour guide in the Statehouse.
"Every one of those 150 legislators," Crabtree said, "know who Eric Miller is."
Miller's base of operations is just a few blocks from the Statehouse, on the sixth floor of an Ohio Street office building where his law firm, Miller Waters Martin & Hall, shares the same space as Advance America. The firm and the nonprofit also share employees, according to federal tax documents, and share the rent.
Working in the organization in 2011, the latest year tax information was available, were 10 volunteers and six employees, the highest-paid by far being Miller, at $126,660. The budget that year just topped $600,000, most of it from donations.
Working with Miller was a seven-member Advance America board of directors made up entirely of pastors and heavily flavored with graduates of Bob Jones University, a South Carolina college that for decades has been an epicenter of Christian fundamentalism.
Advance America's website says its support comes from 45,000 families, 1,500 businesses and 3,700 churches around Indiana. That means Advance America claims to reach one of every three churches in the state.
The involvement of those churches varies. Some receive Miller's emails. Some disperse the hundreds of thousands of voter guides Advance America prints before each general election. Some invite Miller to speak. Some support the cause with one-time "love offerings," others with monthly payments.
Bible Baptist Church in Terre Haute has invited Miller to speak several times and appear on a radio show hosted daily by Rev. Bob Parker, the pastor. When Miller issues alerts on legislative issues, Parker shares them with his friends and listeners. The church gives Advance America a monthly financial gift, although Parker declined to discuss the size.
Why does the church put so much value in Miller's work?
Because Miller serves them like a "missionary," Parker says. That's important, he said, because Christian liberties have been under attack from an "extremely liberal side of things." Those attacks, he said, include efforts to subject church property to taxation and to apply new regulations to child care ministries.
"Eric has just gone to bat for the churches of our state," Parker said, "and has kept us aware of the things that are going on."
On the issue of child care ministries, Miller has been tuned in as far back as 1991, when The Star reported he sought to block a bill that would regulate home and ministry day cares.
Former lawmakers Mary Kay Budak and Connie Lawson, both Republicans, tried to tighten child care regulations in recent decades. Both said their efforts failed when legislators were hit with a barrage of concern from ministers. In most cases, Budak said, Miller led the fight.
It happened in 2012, also. In the wake of the day care tours that so appalled Holdman, a bill with new child care regulations survived the Senate, but died in the House.
Sen. Greg Taylor, D-Indianapolis, blamed Miller for the 2012 defeat and spoke angrily from the floor of the Senate. "These kids," he said, "don't have lobbyists out there working in the hallways."
Rep. Gail Riecken, D-Evansville, said Miller was the "one person who basically derailed a lot of what the professionals have proposed."
As 2013 dawned, lawmakers decided to try again: Senate Bill 305 called for new safety standards in day cares that accept taxpayer-funded vouchers. House Bill 1494 sought national background checks for workers and volunteers in day cares that accept the vouchers.
At first, Miller remained in the background. Then Kubacki's committee voted in April to do something they thought would help churches — amend one of the bills so ministries would get an appeal before facing closure for rules violations.
After the vote, Miller confronted Riecken. "His face and his eyes lit up, and he pointed his finger (at me)," she said. "He said I'm not for marriages and I haven't voted for churches."
Miller went to Rep. Kevin Mahan, R-Hartford City, and said the child care measure was the worst bill he'd seen in 30 years. He offered his "displeasantries," as Mahan later described them, and went so far as to touch the side of Mahan's suit coat with his finger. The former Blackford County sheriff found Miller "rude and out of line."
"In my three years of being here," he said, "that's the first time I ever had any lobbyist react in a manner in which he did."
Miller made it clear he saw the amendment as a step down a slippery slope that could eventually leave Indiana churches under the thumb of the state. Soon, Advance America turned up the political heat, sending emails across the state telling supporters Senate Bill 305 was an attack on religious freedom.
The alerts warned that the legislation would "give new massive and unprecedented power over churches to a state agency." One said, "a pastor could be charged with a crime, go to jail and pay a fine if he doesn't operate his church ministry the way the government tells him to." This, despite the fact Kubacki and others have said repeatedly: The only pastors in danger of jail would be those breaking laws already on the books.
Some legislators, including Holdman, say the tactic was akin to "pulling a fire alarm."
Lawmakers such as Rep. Milo Smith, R-Columbus, who is an elder in his church, began to be approached by friends who had heard Miller on the radio saying the legislature was attacking churches.
Kubacki felt the heat from Miller's appearance on WFRN, a Christian radio station that covers 23 counties in Indiana and has 200,000 listeners weekly from Kokomo to Valparaiso to Elkhart. Listeners were urged to call their lawmakers, particularly Kubacki, about the child care legislation.
Ed Moore, the station manager, said Miller recorded a message that instructed listeners to tell the lawmakers to kill the legislation. It was aired repeatedly over a two-day period.
Kubacki decided that the amendment that originally lit the fire wasn't worth torching the whole package. So she pulled it.
Minimum staffing requirements - which many child advocates say is the best way to make kids safer — were stripped from the bill earlier in the process, something Taylor also blamed on Miller.
As the reforms narrowed, Kubacki and Smith said they made a point of keeping Miller informed, reassuring him they weren't trying to put churches out of business. But at one point, Kubacki said, Miller asked her why the bill was needed.
"Where is the outcry?" he asked.
"I'll tell you where the outcry is," Kubacki replied. "The outcry is the mothers who have lost children in day cares. That's the outcry."
In fact, at least 22 children have died in Indiana day cares since 2009, according to a Star investigation, with 16 of them in unlicensed day cares.
"You should be helping me lead this charge," she said, "not fighting it."
That is not to suggest that Miller wants to endanger children. As he said in an interview with The Star in 1991: "The issue is not safety for children, but instead who will choose where the children will be cared for, and will the state control a church?"
On that issue he has been unwavering.
"No one has stood up for freedoms of churches and people and Hoosier citizens like Eric has," said Moore, the Christian radio station manager.
Said Parker, the pastor from Terre Haute: "This man is a man of character. He is a man of integrity. He is forthright. He is transparent. I respect Eric Miller greatly."
When it came time for the House and Senate to iron out their differences, Kubacki and others thought they had a bill Miller could support.
Then Holdman pulled a stunner.
He proposed a new version of Senate Bill 305 — a pale shadow of its former self but one he thought Eric Miller would accept. The deal Kubacki thought was in place — the one she thought all the players had agreed upon — was gone.
A hearing room normally devoid of drama suddenly exploded. Lawmakers erupted in anger. Kubacki called Miller out publicly.
One observer said she told Miller: "I will not be bullied!"
Another, Rep. Vanessa Summers, D-Indianapolis, said Kubacki called out to Miller and said: "I'm not scared of you. You can say or do whatever you want to, I'm not backing down."
Onlookers — normally absorbed in their smartphones while waiting for their pet bills — stopped everything to watch a confrontation rarely seen in the staid committee rooms. Lobbyists who've worked in the Statehouse halls for 15 or 20 years said they'd never seen anything like it. Certainly not directed at Miller.
"Stunning," was the description given by Lucinda Nord, vice president of public policy for the Indiana Association of United Ways.
In the end, that uprising jarred loose the decades of inaction. A few days later, the legislature approved new child care restrictions. Some credited Holdman's maneuver for prompting the reaction. Some said it was Kubacki's righteous outrage. After the final vote, the House gallery watching above gave a standing ovation.
"This was one time when the Republicans and the Democrats - we were united - because our goal was to make sure we protected kids when they were in day care centers," Kubacki said.
After the vote, some speculated about whether lawmakers like Kubacki might pay a price for this coming together. Even last week Moore, the station manager at WFRN, suggested that Kubacki might see a challenger in her next Republican primary. But from the day the vote was taken, Kubacki seemed unyielding.
"I'm here to protect these kids," she said. "And if I don't get re-elected, I don't care."
Despite the drama, the sum total of the lawmaking was — in the eyes of some child advocates — relatively meager.
It meant that day care providers that accept federal subsidies — including many ministries — must employ workers no younger than 18 years old and that they must use safe sleeping practices for babies. It meant that all regulated day care providers must conduct national background checks on their caregivers.
As good as those things sound, child advocate Ted Maple, CEO of the Day Nursery Association of Indianapolis, said it amounted to "working around the edges."
The weaknesses that remain, he and others say, are substantial.
At the roughly 200 ministry day cares that reject federal subsidies, caregivers are not even required to remain within "sight or sound" of the children in their care. There are no worker drug tests.
Ministry day cares are exempt from most fire safety regulations — working smoke detectors, fire resistant walls and requirements that babies be kept on ground floors, for easier evacuation.
Most important of all, child advocates say, there are still no limits on how many children can be crammed into a ministry space; no limits on how many children one caregiver can try to manage alone.
As recently as October, a committee of lawmakers and child advocates met to discuss child care. Some hoped the group would gift-wrap a package of proposals for the General Assembly that would address the problems of overcrowded and understaffed day cares.
But committee chairman Rep. Tim Wesco, R-Osceola, adjourned their final meeting without a vote. Several committee members thought they had a consensus to make changes; Wesco didn't. He said he wasn't under the influence of Eric Miller. But Taylor, the Indianapolis Democrat, suspected otherwise.
Either way, the result was the same: The forces resistant to child care reform in Indiana had prevailed again in the Statehouse.
Information from: The Indianapolis Star, http://www.indystar.com
This is an AP Member Exchange shared by The Indianapolis Star.