The Journal Gazette
Sunday, January 10, 2021 1:00 am

General Assembly

Statehouse faces strange session

Virus protocols change things for lawmakers, public

NIKI KELLY | The Journal Gazette

INDIANAPOLIS – There will be fewer bills and less interaction with the public during this year's legislative session – all part of new coronavirus protocols that will make the General Assembly look and act very differently.

Some of the changes are internal and the citizens won't see a difference. But others directly affect Hoosiers who want to have their voices heard.

“It's a real situation where the public is at an even bigger disadvantage this session,” said Julia Vaughn, policy director for Common Cause Indiana – a public interest watchdog.

“It's important for the legislature to bend over backward to make this process as open and transparent as they can and recognize that this pandemic presents very real challenges for the public.”

She is going on her 35th session and thinks the General Assembly should have waited to start until March instead of the traditional January. That would have gotten lawmakers further into the vaccine schedule and tamped down the current virus surge.

Instead of ending April 30, lawmakers could have pushed through May or June – meaning the number of days would have been the same. The only hard deadline the legislature has is June 30, said House Speaker Todd Huston. That is when a new state budget must be passed. He has told his members to be flexible on dates.

A special session already might occur due to not getting census data in time to redistrict.

Legislative leaders acknowledge a shutdown at some point is likely.

Senate President Pro Tem Rodric Bray said a shutdown would most likely happen due to staff – not members – getting the virus. A few lawmakers out won't affect the overall operation of the chambers. But Bray said if several staff get it – and more are quarantined due to tight office spaces – “that will grind us to a halt very quickly.”

The Senate staff is working a hybrid system to avoid that – with some working from home instead of the Statehouse every other day.

People can't watch from either gallery in person but all session days and all committees will be live-streamed.

Both the House and Senate have made changes to procedure – the first of which is limiting the number of bills each member can file. The House already had a 10-bill limit but the Senate added one as well. This is because all parts of the process will be slowed due to protocols.

The House is also only meeting in session one day a week for now to avoid large gatherings of more than 100 members, staff and media. On the other days, committees will work through bills.

The Senate will still come into session three days a week with one day solely for committees. Neither chamber works Fridays.

“Less is more a lot of times,” said Fort Wayne Republican Rep. Martin Carbaugh. “I'm a small-government guy.”

Committee work will be the most different. And if people come to testify, they might not even be in the same room as lawmakers. For instance, the Senate is having members sit in one room and people will testify virtually from another room.

The desks, chairs and microphone are wiped down between each person.

The House initially planned to do the same but decided at the last minute to allow in-person testimony in its two chambers – the traditional Statehouse chamber and the temporary chamber in the Government Center South building. People won't be able to stay and congregate in the chambers though.

Carbaugh said he participated in a few committee meetings with virtual testimony during the summer and fall and there was still substantive work done.

“It felt like any other committee,” he said. “I don't think we lost anything in terms of having back-and-forth conversation.”

People are encouraged to submit written testimony, and video testimony will also be accepted.

Vaughn said she will come to testify and leave immediately. But she said some colleagues with underlying health conditions are staying away altogether. She said written testimony is easily lost in a shuffle of documents.

“There are going to be different playing fields,” she said.

The biggest shortcoming, Vaughn said, is that GOP leaders won't allow people to testify – even virtually – if they don't come to Statehouse. Those with health concerns, who have COVID or who are quarantining due to exposure are left out.

“My entire life now is conducted over Zoom. I don't understand why public testimony is an exception,” Vaughn said.

Bray said two-way communication is new technology for the chamber and allowing people from other cities and states to testify could completely overwhelm the system.

“We're still in the crawling, not walking, stage,” he said.

There also will be fewer – if any – citizen days in which organizations host members at the Statehouse to meet and discuss issues with the legislature.

Sen. Justin Busch, R-Fort Wayne, said he will still keep his mantra of having an open door, noting he is using Zoom more to “meet” with constituents. He even recently helped an eighth grader with her homework on Zoom.

He said it is just not safe to have everyone all together in one room for testimony – “we are trying to do the best we can.”

Huston said House members can attend committees virtually to hear testimony – but they have to be physically present to vote on bills or amendments.

Neither the House nor Senate will allow remote voting – even for members with the virus or in quarantine. But both Bray and Huston have acknowledged rules could change depending on circumstances.

The legislature has no testing or screening procedures in place. It is up to each member to decide to get tested and tell leaders if they are positive. Positive tests won't be made public though Bray and Huston said contact tracing would be done.

Carbaugh said he is open to temperature screenings, which are being done at different businesses.

“I don't know anyone in here who wants to be careless and hurt anybody,” he said. “I understand the possibility is there. I've seen the outbreaks and deaths. I'm not tone deaf but I'm an optimist.”

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