Lawmakers start debating possibilities for a virtual or hybrid 2020 legislative session

Indiana lawmakers who are part of a committee to decide where, when and how their work can resume during the COVID-19 pandemic outlined early plans and questions for the 2021 legislative session during a meeting on Thursday.

And the reality of the ongoing pandemic made itself clear from the start. Sen. J.D. Ford, D-Indianapolis, appeared for the meeting via Zoom rather in person—the only lawmaker on the committee to do so. Ford later explained he stayed home out of an abundance of caution when he learned he was in contact with someone who tested positive for COVID-19.

Meanwhile, Sen. Chris Garten, R-Scottsburg, said he would not wear a mask at the start of the meeting because the person nearest him was “15 or 16” feet away—that despite a citywide mask requirement for anyone in a public building who is not in a room alone. All other committee members wore a mask.

The committee’s co-chairman, Rep. Matt Lehman, R-Berne, said the purpose of the Legislative Continuity Committee’s first meeting was to lay the foundation for addressing what’s to come. He led the committee through a wide-ranging discussion that looked at several “if-then” scenarios, including how to structure the 2021 legislative session and how to hold the Legislature’s Organization Day—the ceremonial start to the legislative session in November—under a variety of pandemic circumstances.

At issue is how to meet obligations under the Indiana Constitution that lawmakers meet in 2021—and meet at the capitol building—as well as the need to let the public participate in the process.

“We have an obligation to protect the Constitution and the institution and the process and the people,” Lehman said. “We have to do that.”

Summer study committees, for example, will soon be underway, and many already have meetings scheduled. But there are some challenges, including limited capacity in streaming the meetings online. Right now, legislative staff can’t schedule more than two committee livestreams for the same time.

This limitation prompted Rep. Ed DeLaney, D-Indianapolis, and other members to question staffing needs moving forward, which could include increasing the number of IT employees. DeLaney also suggested the Legislature should be prepared to add employees to deal with more complicated policy matters, especially those coming from federal government decisions.

The committee agreed to issue a survey to lawmakers in the House and Senate to determine what the larger General Assembly wants to do about its upcoming Organization Day. But the committee members did discuss options.

Lehman said holding Organization Day in person should be the preferred plan, although he said lawmakers should be prepared to adjust plans if needed. Lehman also said Organization Day could be one opportunity for lawmakers to pass a bill to change the structure of the regular session, making it all-virtual, a hybrid session or some other model.

“It’s not like we’re charting new ground by passing a bill on Organization Day,” which would require the chambers to suspend a number of rules. Lehman said. “I think this reaches that bar.”

If the lawmakers change the format of the regular session, they’ll have to consider changes to how members cast votes, how the public can provide testimony and how to keep virtual meetings secure from outside attacks. Ford, for example, pointed to a recent Indiana Election Commission meeting that was “Zoom bombed” when a member of the public broadcast a pornographic video.

Lehman and his co-chairman, Sen. Mike Crider, R-Greenfield, said the committee has the benefit of looking to how other legislatures around the country have adjusted to the pandemic. Lehman said Indiana lawmakers could take a cue from Kentucky lawmakers and consider voting on measures from their offices in lieu of a full session on the floor. The author presenting the bill could offer remarks from the floor, and discussion would be livestreamed to members at their respective locations.

But Lehman said the Legislature needs to strike a careful balance in deciding what circumstances should permit lawmakers to work from home, suggesting too much virtual work without the right oversight could disrupt the legislative process.

“If I can sit at home and sign my amendments, I’d file 100 of them,” Lehman said as an example, adding the committee needs to consider how what they change might make it easier for a lawmaker to be less engaged publicly, but more active behind the scenes.

Early this week, Democratic lawmakers called on Indiana Gov. Eric Holcomb to schedule a special session to get ahead of issues they argue need immediate action, from the ongoing COVID-19 pandemic to a police reform agenda created by the Indiana Black Legislative Caucus. That proposal wasn’t directly discussed in Thursday’s committee meeting.

Also, on Wednesday night, embattled Indiana Attorney General Curtis Hill called on Holcomb night to hold a special session, arguing in an advisory opinion that the governor lacks the authority to enforce his mandate—which takes effect Monday—that residents around the states wear masks. Holcomb announced the mandate on Wednesday.

The mask order applies to any person who is at least 8 years old, which means face coverings will be required for students beginning in the third grade for the Indiana schools that plan to reopen this fall.

Hill offered his advisory opinion in response to a letter from several Republican lawmakers who called Holcomb’s mask mandate into question. The group included Sen. James Buck, R-Hometown, Sen. Blake Doriot, R-Goshen, Sen. Aaron Freeman, R-Indianapolis, Sen. Mark Messmer, R-Jasper, and Sen. Jim Tomes, R-Wadesville.

Doriot and Tomes also attended the “Indiana Back to Work Rally” in May. The senators joined citizens protesting the governor’s decision to shut down businesses, schools and other parts of public life to prevent the virus from spreading.  At the time, Tomes argued there should have been more input from lawmakers before issuing a stay-at-home order.

The Legislative Continuity Committee will meet again at 9 a.m. Aug. 17. The members expect to make a more concrete plan for Organization Day at that time.

Erica Irish is the 2020 Russell Pulliam editor for TheStatehouseFile.com, a news website powered by Franklin College journalism students. 

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