INDIANAPOLIS – Lawmakers returned to the Statehouse on Tuesday to swear in new members and organize for the 2021 session, but the discussion was all about the pandemic – including an attempt to both end the public health emergency and require legislators to wear masks.
Neither measure passed.
House and Senate leaders have no specific protocols in place for handling COVID-19 in the Legislature – no testing, temperature screenings or a threshold for shutdown should there be an outbreak.
And coming forward with a positive test will be up to the individual lawmakers.
“I don't think we are appropriately ready to conduct the session the way it needs to be,” said Democratic Rep. Robin Shackleford. “Leadership is doing the bare minimum.”
Shackleford revealed on a media call after session that she got a call Tuesday that her sister had tested positive. She was recently on vacation with her and is a close contact.
The Centers of Disease Control and Prevention calls for a 14-day quarantine but Shackleford finished the day at the Statehouse.
She said the House doesn't have any rules or policies in place and if she hadn't self-reported she could have exposed other members, the public and staff.
Organization Day is usually just pomp and circumstance, but the House spent time debating a proposed rule that would have required members to wear masks and allow a fine, censure or other penalty if they refused to comply.
While other people in the building have to wear masks due to Gov. Eric Holcomb's order, legislators can't be governed by a separate branch of government. Leadership in the House and Senate have encouraged but not required masks.
Only two House members were seen without masks Tuesday – Rep. John Jacob, R-Indianapolis, and Rep. Curt Nisly, R-Milford. It appeared all senators did.
Rep. Matt Pierce, D-Bloomington, said it is impossible to always keep 6 feet apart – especially when literally “putting our heads together” on a bill. And he said right now legislators are putting themselves above other people.
“Look folks, this isn't that complicated,” said Fort Wayne House Democrat Phil GiaQuinta. “Masks protect all of us.”
But Rep. Matt Lehman, R-Berne, said House rules should be reserved for the most heinous activity – not a dress code.
“This is a slippery slope,” he said.
Nisly also filed a resolution to end public health emergency that Holcomb has issued eight times under the state's emergency disaster law. That law also provides that the General Assembly can terminate such an order.
“The general assembly finds that Hoosiers are responsible for and capable of protecting the health and safety of themselves and their families,” the resolution said. “The general assembly finds that the state of emergency is no longer necessary to protect the health, safety, and welfare of the residents of Indiana.”
Indiana cases, deaths and hospitalizations have been rising for weeks – hitting records almost every day.
No action was taken and Speaker Todd Huston said the resolution will go through the regular process in January.
Neither the House nor Senate changed its rules to allow virtual voting members in the case of sickness or quarantine.
“We think right now it's important that we vote in person,” Huston said. “It's a bit of a slippery slope to go down that path.”
Huston and Senate President Pro Tem Rodric Bray also talked generally about priorities for the session – a balanced budget that prioritizes education; investments in broadband; legal protections for entities against COVID-19 lawsuits; and a focus on health care.
“In the 2021 legislative session we will also tackle redistricting, as our state's constitution prescribes, and work on policies that will help mitigate the impact of COVID-19 on our economy and on our local communities,” Bray said. “The '21 session will surely be one for the history books, and Senate Republicans stand ready to do the work Hoosiers across our state elected us to do.”