The Indiana General Assembly convenes for Organization Day this afternoon with its Republican supermajority strengthened by the Nov. 3 election.
Look for a harmonious start to the 2021 session, but don't expect the peace and goodwill to last. Divisions within GOP ranks are inevitable as the state faces challenges unlike any current lawmakers have ever seen.
The first squabble could be the same one Hoosiers statewide have – incredibly – been having over face coverings. The Journal Gazette's Niki Kelly reported last week that masks won't be mandated for legislators, per the Legislative Continuity Committee, which has been discussing logistical procedures for several months. Gov. Eric Holcomb's directive to wear face coverings does not apply because lawmakers make their own rules.
Legislators have long carved out an exception for themselves on guns at the Statehouse.
“If someone opens fire from the balcony, I want all the guns I can shooting back. Unless, of course, there are school kids up there,” Brownsburg Republican Matthew Whetstone said in defending the legislators' right to carry guns into the chamber in 2003.
Just as it would be difficult to protect students from flying bullets, it will be difficult to protect legislative staff, reporters and anyone else from COVID-19 droplets flying around the chamber. House and Senate leadership will encourage 100% masking, but the decision not to make masks mandatory for members represents an early concession to the right flank.
The House Republican caucus grew from 67 to 71 members, including the addition of Rep. John Jacob, who unseated Rep. Dollyne Sherman in the primary and defeated a Democratic challenger Nov. 3. Jacob, who has called the Catholic Church a cult and the pope the Antichrist, is expected to join other members on the far right to focus on abortion, guns and anti-government measures. Rep. Jim Lucas, R-Seymour, who has been outspoken in his criticism of Holcomb's leadership during the pandemic, will undoubtedly be an ally in challenging pandemic protocols.
In an online legislative preview with the Indiana Chamber of Commerce Monday, House Speaker Todd Huston, R-Indianapolis, said his goal is for a transparent session that “allows citizens and stakeholders to be active participants and feel their voices can be heard.”
But Huston and other caucus leaders, including House Minority Leader Phil GiaQuinta, D-Fort Wayne, acknowledged there is much work to do under the most trying of circumstances, with no time to allow for virus quarantines. A two-year budget and redistricting top the list, but the pandemic has pushed other issues to the forefront.
The state Chamber's legislative priorities once again include work-sharing, which would allow employers to reduce workers' hours instead of laying them off. The General Assembly's failure to approve work-sharing has been costly this year, as the federal coronavirus relief act covered unemployment expenses for states that had the program in place.
While Indiana has stepped up efforts to extend broadband access, the lack of high-speed internet access statewide has been another obstacle in coping with the pandemic, as have disparities in health care within minority communities. All of the caucus leaders appeared to endorse an increase in the state's cigarette tax, while noting the debate will be over how the revenue is used. GiaQuinta said it should support health initiatives, and not simply be used to support the state's general fund. An increase of $2 per pack is expected to raise an additional $500 million over two years.
Senate President Pro Tem Rodric Bray seemed to support the suggestion that a measure offering liability protections related to COVID-19 might move quickly through both chambers, while Senate Minority Leader Greg Taylor insisted it should be accompanied by a measure setting redistricting procedures.
Today's mostly ceremonial gathering will include no formal discussion of those issues, but undoubtedly will offer a clue to how willing some lawmakers will be to hunker down and work to the advantage of all Hoosiers.