(INDIANAPOLIS) — Legislators have started discussions of how to put 150 lawmakers in the statehouse while still social distancing.
Indiana legislators adjourned for the year just as the coronavirus pandemic was starting. The 2021 session will be the first in which they need to take into account the challenges and risks of the virus. The House and Senate chambers aren’t big enough to create six feet of distance between 50 senators and 100 representatives, and committee rooms are often standing-room only.
A six-member study committee is reviewing options, including moving the session to the Indiana
Convention Center, or allowing legislators to participate through Zoom or other teleconferencing platforms.
There’s a catch, though: Indiana law requires legislators to meet at the statehouse. They can change that, but they’d have to meet in person to pass a law that they don’t have to meet in person. House Majority Leader Matt Lehman (R-Berne), who’s chairing the study committee, says they could do that at the one-day organizational session in November. For a single day, he says, legislators could spread throughout the four floors of the statehouse, in offices, committee rooms, or even the chambers of the Supreme Court justices.
Lehman notes the Kentucky House adjourned a month after Indiana’s did, and by the end of the session had adopted a system where the only legislator in the chamber would be the person presenting a bill. Others would watch the proceedings from their office on iPads, then text their votes to the clerk, one at a time.
The panel plans to meet more frequently than the usual four-to-six meetings for study committees.
Lehman says there needs to be a final plan well in advance of Organization Day so the IT department has time to get any needed technology ready.
Lehman and Indianapolis Representative Ed DeLaney (D) say while some changes might just be in case of emergency, others could become permanent.
Committee members took different approaches to social distancing for their first hearing. Charlestown Senator Chris Garten (R) didn’t wear a mask but seated himself far away from the rest of the committee. And Carmel Senator J.D. Ford (D) says he’s isolating at home after coming in contact with someone who tested positive. He joined the hearing via webcam — and inadvertently gave the committee a real-world illustration of the challenges ahead when his connection went out for a few minutes.