Indiana lawmakers getting ready for socially-distanced legislative session

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("Indiana State Capitol Building" by Drew Tarvin, CC BY 2.0)

Legislators are touring a couple of possible alternatives to the statehouse as they get ready for a socially distanced session.

The House chamber isn’t big enough for all 100 members to socially distance — because of the way desks are positioned, legislative staffers say they can only fit 42 members on the floor at the time. Even using the premium offices just off the floor or up the stairs, there’s only room for 94. The House would have to make use of offices or other space further away from the floor, making it more difficult to cast votes.

Legislators are looking at the convention center, and the Indiana Government Center, which has an auditorium and several conference rooms, as possible alternative sites. But the Organization Day session, when newly elected members are sworn in and a House speaker elected, by law must take place at the statehouse on November 17. Members could change the law and their own rules then to accommodate a more flexible approach to the remainder of the session.

A six-member committee studying how to hold the session during a pandemic is leaving it to Speaker Todd Huston (R-Fishers), Senate President Pro Tem Rod Bray (R-Martinsville), and the House and Senate minority leaders to decide how to handle Organization Day. The panel is focusing its efforts on recommendations on where things go from there.

Next year’s session must pass a new state budget and new congressional and legislative maps. Beyond that, legislators warn the difficulties of conducting the session may limit their workload. The study committee is already recommending a 10-bill limit on what each senator can introduce. The House already has that limit.

The panel is discussing other possibilities to spread out the workload. Avon Representative Greg Steuerwald (R) notes that while legislators normally start the real work of the session in January, state law allows either chamber to convene any time after Organization Day if there’s a quorum. That opens the door to getting an early start on the session in November or December.

Indianapolis Representative Ed DeLaney (D) says legislators could borrow a couple of procedures more common in Washington than at the statehouse: using subcommittees to hear bills with fewer legislators in attendance, or conducting hearings on general topics, rather than on bills. He says hearings where no votes are taken could even be conducted by staff.

The legislature’s I-T staff is already testing whether lawmakers could cast votes electronically from their offices or other locations. They say it definitely works within the statehouse, but they’re still checking whether it’ll still work further away, at the convention center or legislators’ homes. They say the biggest challenge appears to be providing tech support for legislators who run into difficulty logging in.

House Majority Leader Matt Lehman says the November 17 Organization Day will have to change some rules:

That first day has to be held at the statehouse on that date. But while legislators normally start the session in earnest in January, state law leaves room to begin earlier.The Indiana House is facing some challenges in holding its session while socially distancing:

Legislative staffers say they can socially distance 50 senators in the Senate chamber if they put some of them in the visitors’ gallery. But because of the way the desks are positioned in the House, they can only fit 92 of the 100 members. Legislators may vote to hold the session outside the statehouse, but the November 17 start of the session has to be held there.

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