INDIANAPOLIS – Lawmakers kicked off the 2021 session Monday with Democrats focusing on health care, teacher pay and redistricting.
Meanwhile, Republicans in charge of the House and Senate filed their priority bills on education funding and liability protections.
But the first day was dominated by how different the session will look during a pandemic. The House moved to temporary digs in Indiana Government Center South. The Senate stayed in the Statehouse, but 20 of its members were sitting in the public gallery on a different floor of the chamber.
The vast majority of members wore masks, although a few legislators did not, and others took theirs off once seated at their desks.
“I ask for your patience,” House Speaker Todd Huston said, acknowledging they are dealing with situations as they arise, and flexibility will be key.
He and Senate President Pro Tem Rodric Bray said they won't make it public if members of the chambers test positive for COVID-19 but will follow state and federal contact tracing guidelines. If exposed, quarantining will be “encouraged.”
Also on Monday, House Democrat Leader Phil GiaQuinta, of Fort Wayne, stumped, “Let's stand shoulder to shoulder – from 6 feet – and get to work.”
Democrats traditionally get to speak about their priorities on the first day in January while Republicans did so on Organization Day in November.
He spoke about Indiana's health rankings, saying Hoosiers' poor health has caused more deaths from the coronavirus than in other, similar states. Specifically, GiaQuinta mentioned Indiana's obesity and smoking rates and said his caucus will advocate better policy and lower health care costs.
He also said Indiana's public school teachers deserve a raise.
“Our local school districts have been asked to do more with less for a nearly a decade, starting with a $300 million cut to the education budget in January 2010. Now this pandemic has squeezed every ounce out of them,” he said.
GiaQuinta said a recent report on teacher pay found average salaries for public school teachers are falling further and further behind salaries paid in neighboring states and “it's going to take a substantial investment from our state in order to make Indiana's public school teachers' salaries even remotely competitive with those states.”
The House and Senate have bills that will move quickly to ensure full funding for schools that are meeting virtually due to the pandemic. State law otherwise would drop funding to 85% per student. Those bills impact only the current school year – not the new two-year state budget that will be crafted during this session.
The legislation is in House Bill 1003 and Senate Bill 2.
GOP leadership in the chambers also has filed two bills shielding schools, businesses and governments from COVID-related lawsuits so long as their actions aren't grossly negligent. The measures are in House Bill 1002 and Senate Bill 1.