INDIANAPOLIS — Indiana lawmakers opened their 2021 legislative session on Monday, largely wearing masks and in greatly modified settings for coronavirus precautions, even as legislative leaders said they were braced for disruptions from possible COVID-19 infections.
The House was gaveled into session for the first time it what will be its temporary location for the next several months, giving up its wood-paneled Statehouse chamber that's adorned with a 100-light brass chandelier and a marble counter-topped speaker's dais.
That chamber has been deemed too crowded for the 100 House members and necessary staffers, so the House will meet in a large conference room in a neighboring state office building that appears more like a business convention site filled with folding tables and standard office chairs.
The Senate will continue meeting in its Statehouse chamber, but the balcony is closed to the public as 20 of the 50 senators will be sitting there to allow greater distancing. Plexiglass surrounds the lecterns from which senators speak.
Republican Senate President Pro Tem Rodric Bray of Martinsville said while precautions were being taken against the spread of the coronavirus among lawmakers coming from across the state, General Assembly leaders will simply have to "play it by ear" if infections hit during the legislative session that's scheduled to last until late April.
"It is possible that we could get to a point, though, where we have staff or senators out in a number that begins to really become problematic that we may have to take a break," Bray said. "We're willing to do that if necessary."
Legislative leaders are encouraging House and Senate members to wear masks, but they are only required for employees and visitors. About a half dozen Republican House members didn't wear masks during any or most of Monday's House session that lasted about 40 minutes.
Republican House Speaker Todd Huston of Fishers wore a mask throughout his time presiding and urged patience as the Legislature adjusts how it conducts committee meetings and floor session.
"It would be disingenuous to say we aren't making it up a little bit as we go along," Huston said.
Huston, who said a fever lasting several days was his most severe symptom from a COVID-19 infection he suffered last month, and Bray repeated that they wouldn't disclose any coronavirus infections among lawmakers, citing medical privacy concerns, although they are required to report any positive tests to legislative leaders.
The COVID-19 pandemic will loom large over the Indiana Legislature’s new session as lawmakers face the fallout from the disease that led to more than 7,000 deaths and economic distress across the state since the last session ended in March.
They will face debates about Republican Governor Eric Holcomb’s public health orders over the past 10 months and draw up a state budget with plenty of questions about how the coronavirus-sparked recession will impact state tax collections as they try to boost school funding again.
A look at some of the top issues for the 2021 session:
Some Republican legislators want to roll back the governor’s authority under the state’s emergency powers law, which Holcomb has used to issue the statewide mask mandate and order the closure of businesses deemed nonessential during the early weeks of the coronavirus pandemic last spring.
Many conservatives argue Holcomb infringed upon individual rights with the more than four dozen coronavirus-related executive orders he’s issued since March. Some lawmakers have suggested steps such as limiting emergency action by the governor to 30 days without legislative support.
Republican House Speaker Todd Huston praises Holcomb’s actions, while saying he expects changes so that the Legislature would have greater sway in future long-term situations.
Senate President Pro Tem Rodrick Bray says the COVID-19 pandemic calls for a review of the governor’s authority. “Those powers were drafted contemplating a tornado, a fire, earthquake, things of that type that are short-term issues,” Bray said.
Holcomb, fresh off a landslide reelection victory, said he’s willing to discuss changes but that a governor needs the authority to act quickly in health emergencies.
“The virus doesn’t take 30 days to discuss what a health emergency is,” Holcomb said. “I don’t get to go to COVID-19 and say, ‘Hey, can you call a timeout for a second? We gotta have a big discussion about this and I don’t know how long the discussion will be.’”
Holcomb and legislative leaders are also lined up in support of shielding businesses from employee or customer lawsuits over coronavirus exposure.
Business groups argue the liability protection will encourage economic recovery but that lawsuits would still be allowed in cases of “willful misconduct” and “gross negligence.”
Opponents, including labor and civil rights groups, have opposed Congress and states from approving such shields, which they say strips essential workers of potential legal recourse as they take risks during the pandemic.
Legislative budget-writers are anticipating little additional money will be available as they work on a new two-year spending plan, even though state tax collections have largely stabilized from the plunges seen early in the coronavirus-caused recession.
Holcomb has said he wants to boost school spending and perhaps adopt some of the proposals toward boosting Indiana’s lagging teacher pay issued by a commission he appointed nearly two years ago — although he hasn’t endorsed specific suggestions.
Much of the state budget debate, however, could depend on how much COVID-19 assistance for states is ultimately approved by Congress.
A proposal to increase the state’s cigarette tax for the first time since 2007 could get debated again after not advancing in recent years. The Indiana Chamber of Commerce is backing it as a way to improve public health by decreasing smoking. Holcomb said recently he was undecided on whether to support an increase.
The Republican-dominated Legislature will use data from the 2020 census for redrawing congressional and legislative district maps to reflect population shifts.
This once-a-decade work affects the political futures of all 50 senators and 100 House members. Republicans will have total control of the process, as they did during the last redistricting in 2011.
Critics maintain that helped Indiana Republicans gain outsized power in the Legislature — where they now hold a 39-11 Senate majority and a 71-29 House command. Republicans have also locked in a 7-2 majority of Indiana’s congressional seats since the 2012 election.
Holcomb has renewed his call for a law requiring more businesses to provide workplace accommodations for pregnant women. Legislative Republicans rebuffed that proposal during the 2020 session after complaints from business groups about companies possibly being exposed to lawsuits.
Republican lawmakers are also preparing proposals that they say are aimed at making sure utility companies don’t move from coal to renewable energy so quickly that the state’s electrical grid becomes unreliable. Environmental and consumer groups, however, worry that legislation could stall the growth of wind and solar power while propping up the coal industry.
The move comes after Republicans pushed through a bill during the 2020 session making it more difficult for electric utilities to close coal-fired power plants.
Story by Associated Press reporter Tom Davies