The Journal Gazette
Sunday, July 19, 2020 1:00 am

Legislators look for safe options

Usually, rooms are jampacked; that won't work this year

NIKI KELLY | The Journal Gazette

INDIANAPOLIS – It's not uncommon to have several hundred people on the Indiana House floor during session. Between legislators, staff, media and visiting sports teams there is no such thing as social distancing.

It's even worse in the tiny rooms that hold House and Senate hearings – the chairs fill up hours before and standing spectators burst out into the halls.

Mike Leppert, a longtime lobbyist who works on energy and utilities issues, said a colleague once sent him a note saying he could feel the person behind him breathing on his neck.

“You can't possibly jam more people in those rooms,” Leppert said.

That's why legislators will start this week to look at how to conduct session in a way that protects members and staff while still keeping the process transparent for the public.

The Legislative Continuity Committee was created partly because of the coronavirus but also will look at other worst-case scenarios should having a normal session be impossible.

“I want us to be able to gather in person in January. It's always better when you have people together,” said Senate President Pro Tem Rodric Bray. “The synergy and collaboration and the ideas going back and forth is very healthy. Perhaps I'm old school but it's more effective than a Zoom meeting.”

Indiana is in a better situation than some other states because it has until January to work out the details.

Mississippi, for instance, reported at least 30 lawmakers and 11 workers at the state capitol have tested positive for the coronavirus as of Tuesday. Two were hospitalized, according to the Jackson Clarion-Ledger.

Ohio returned in late March and worked until June. Chairs were spaced 6 feet apart. Staff was limited as was testimony. And lawmakers were split into groups – some on the floor and others in nearby rooms watching a livestream and then heading to the floor one at a time to vote.

Virtual voting

One thing likely to be included is a remote voting option for some House and Senate members.

Current rules don't allow it. In fact, one of the more entertaining House episodes came in 2004 when then-Speaker Pat Bauer, a Democrat, shocked the chamber by holding up a computer and trying to allow a member who was recovering from a heart attack to vote from home hundreds of miles away. Republicans flipped and it was never mentioned again. 

But rules can be changed pretty easily – likely on Organization Day in November. That is when all members of the House and Senate are sworn in and it can be used to adopt new procedures as well.

Republican Rep. Matt Lehman of Berne is co-chairing the continuity committee and he conceded there are lawmakers who are high risk – either due to age or underlying health conditions. So there may be a need for some members to be able to participate virtually.

“We have to be responsible. We need to protect the Constitution, the institution and each other,” he said. “We don't want to put people in jeopardy.”

Lehman hopes to have more than one plan come out of the committee – different scenarios dependent on how active the coronavirus is then.

Not meeting isn't an option since the legislature has to pass a new state budget in 2021. And it also has to redistrict state and federal boundaries based on new census numbers, though that has been delayed and might require a special session.

While everything is on the table, Lehman said he doesn't think a mandatory testing protocol would be popular with members.

Gov. Eric Holcomb has mandated masks in the building but as a separate branch of government the legislature doesn't have to comply. 

Public access

Committee hearings also must be considered. Those include lobbyists and citizens giving their opinions on proposed legislation. The House has especially small rooms – a suite of four offices sometimes with four meetings ongoing at the same time, attracting hundreds.

Options might include using conference rooms available in other government center buildings or moving to convention center space. And citizens could submit testimony in writing or participate virtually.

Luke Britt, Indiana's public access counselor, said he has seen a successful balancing of public health, safety and access in recent months. Local councils have held virtual meetings or used a hybrid approach.

“I've been surprised that many people really like the virtual stuff,” Britt said. “They don't have to drive down, enter a building or wear a mask to observe. In some ways it is even more open.”

Britt noted the General Assembly already broadcasts all general sessions and committee meetings and should be able to adjust relatively easily.

Leppert said lawmakers will have to give more advanced notice of hearings; make sure people understand options for testifying and generally try to handle fewer bills because everything will take longer.

“There is an opportunity to have more and better participation but in fewer hearings,” he said.

“If they are going to file 2,000 bills they are going to choose more strategically whether to have that many and face the fact that the handling of business will have to slow down. Voting might take 20 minutes instead of 20 seconds.”

Different look

There might be fewer live bodies in committee rooms but more people could want to participate virtually than those who would make a two- or three-hour drive to the Statehouse.

Things like having school groups attend session for recognition will likely be rethought and the page program for students to learn about government might be limited. Public galleries might also have to close.

House Speaker Todd Huston said everyone should expect change.

“Our first goal is to make sure legislators, members of the public, media, lobbyists are safe. We don't want anybody to feel like they can't serve effectively because they are compromising their health. Looking at all sorts of options,” he said. “We don't know exactly what it will look like.”

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