INDIANAPOLIS — A committee is looking into how Indiana lawmakers will safely convene in 2021.
So far— the committee is planning to move the Indiana House of Representatives outside the Statehouse and into the Government South conference center.
“Right now, nothing is set in stone,” said Republican House Speaker Todd Huston. “The current House chamber wasn’t built with social distancing in mind.”
Neither were House committee rooms, but the Indiana Senate is expected to stay in the statehouse.
“For some reason I’ll never understand, the smaller body has the larger committee rooms,” explained Democratic State Rep. Ed Delaney of Indianapolis.
He serves on the Legislative Continuity Committee assigned to come up with COVID-19 safety suggestions for the session.
“We ought to be really serious about this but so far, we’re not,” said Delaney.
He believes they should be coming up with a plan now about how the public, lobbyists, staff and press will be part of the process. He wants them to be in the room.
“We’ve given very little thought to any of that,” said Delaney.
The fear—for some— is anyone who isn’t a lawmaker will only be allowed to attend virtually from another room like they have been for Summer Study Sessions. Kerwin Olson, the Executive Director of the Citizens Action Coalition said he has already seen that system fail at times.
“You couldn’t hear them on the microphone, they had no video, there were delays,” said Olson.
He doesn’t understand why people can go to restaurants and sporting events, but they can’t testify on important legislation in person.
“Doesn’t seem very fair, doesn’t seem very transparent and that makes me sad,” said Olson. “A lot of the access that the public has is only at times of committee hearing and on the ground at the statehouse and so, to take that away from the public further disadvantages the public and actually may advantage certain industries and certain lobbyists who have government affairs people who are very well connected.”
“Make no mistake, we’d prefer they are in the room,” added Speaker Huston. “And we will do what we can to make sure they are in the room, that’s the best and most effective way to do it.”
Huston said they are keeping transparency in mind, but they are also listening to the needs of high-risk members and waiting on up to date data closer to session.
“It’s possible we could be making decisions about whether we are in the House chamber the day before,” said Huston.
But Delaney doesn’t think lawmakers should wait for these decisions. Especially if they are going to decide to do things virtually.
“Set it up and test it,” said Delaney. “Test it with public with press, with lobbyists, whatever, to see if it functions.”
Huston said they should have more decided on how things will go by Organization day after the election in November.
“Even then, you have six weeks between Organizational Day and the first day we traditionally come back for session, again things change so quickly,” said Huston.
Reporter Kayla Sullivan asked Governor Eric Holcomb Wednesday during his virtual press conference if he thinks the public, press and lobbyists should be in the room and whether he will require lawmakers to wear masks at the statehouse.
“I plan on sitting down with leadership to find out exactly where and how they will be meeting,” said Holcomb. “And absolutely the public needs to have access to the discussions and the process. So, to be determined on how to accomplish that. Obviously, we are doing a lot of things differently, we’ve had to.”
He did not answer the mask portion of the question.