The Indiana Senate has passed legislation that would give lawmakers the power to convene at any time during a statewide public emergency and more oversight over federal stimulus dollars.
The Senate on Monday voted 39-10 to pass House Bill 1123, which would create what would be called an “emergency session.” Sen. Frank Mrvan, D-Hammond, was the only Democrat to vote in favor of the bill.
In order to convene an emergency session, the Legislative Council would have to pass a resolution declaring why an emergency session is necessary, setting the agenda for the session and determining the time, date and place it would take place. Only bills related to that agenda would be allowed to be considered during the session.
Emergency sessions would be limited to 40 days and would be required to end within 10 days of the end of the state of emergency.
Gov. Eric Holcomb, a Republican, has questioned whether the creation of an “emergency session” would be considered constitutional.
Former Indiana Supreme Court Justice Frank Sullivan has also testified that he believes the bill is unconstitutional because the state constitution gives the power of calling special sessions to the governor, not the Legislature, and one branch of government is not permitted do something that another branch has been given explicit power to do.
Lawmakers have not been persuaded by that argument, though, and have said the courts could decide that issue later.
HB 1123, authored by Rep. Matt Lehman, R-Berne, would also create an economic stimulus fund where discretionary federal stimulus dollars received by the state would be deposited. The Legislature would be responsible for appropriating the funding if lawmakers are in session. If lawmakers are not in session, state agencies can decide how to spend the funding, but the decisions would be subject to review by the State Budget Committee.
Any stimulus money received before April 29, 2021, would not be affected by the change.
Holcomb’s administration has spent or allocated $2.4 billion in federal CARES Act funding without lawmakers having a say in how the dollars are being used.
“Our forefathers never anticipated the unilateral actions of one person to spend billions of tax dollars,” Republican Sen. Sue Glick, the bill’s Senate sponsor, said.
Earlier this month, the Senate Rules and Legislative Procedure Committee stripped language from the bill that would have prohibited state and local orders from restricting anyone’s ability to worship and required a local governing body to approve restrictions imposed by local health departments, if those restrictions were more stringent than the governor’s.
The committee also added language that would establish a legislative state of disaster advisory group that would be tasked with working with the governor during the emergency, making recommendations on how to address the situation and keeping other lawmakers informed.
That provision was initially in Senate Bill 407, which was the Senate’s approach to giving the Legislature more oversight during future public emergencies.
SB 407 would have allowed the governor to issue an initial 30-day emergency order, but would have limited any extensions to only 15 days, unless the Legislature was called for a special session or was already in session.
If the governor called lawmakers in for a special session, or they were already in session, the initial order could have been extended for 30 days under SB 407. To have an emergency order extended beyond a 60-day period, the Legislature would have had to vote to approve the extension.
Holcomb first issued the public health emergency order for the COVID-19 pandemic in March and has continued it every 30 days since then. He announced last week that he would extend that order again, but he would lift all restrictions, including the statewide mask mandate, on April 6. Local governments would still have that ability.
HB 1123 returns to the House, where lawmakers can accept the changes that were made in the Senate or continue to tweak the language.
Senate President Pro Tem Rodric Bray, R-Martinsville, has said he expects the House to concur on the latest version of the bill.