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Indiana lawmakers open 2021 session amid virus changes

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Posted at 5:49 PM, Jan 04, 2021
and last updated 2021-01-04 21:36:23-05

INDIANAPOLIS (AP) — Indiana lawmakers opened their 2021 legislative session on Monday, largely wearing masks and in greatly modified settings for coronavirus precautions, even as legislative leaders said they were braced for disruptions from possible COVID-19 infections.

The House was gaveled into session for the first time in what will be its temporary location for the next several months, giving up its wood-paneled Statehouse chamber that’s adorned with a 100-light brass chandelier and a marble counter-topped speaker’s dais.

That chamber has been deemed too crowded for the 100 House members and necessary staffers, so the House will meet in a large conference room in a neighboring state office building that appears more like a business convention site filled with folding tables and standard office chairs.

The Senate will continue meeting in its Statehouse chamber, but the balcony is closed to the public as 20 of the 50 senators will be sitting there to allow greater distancing. Plexiglass surrounds the lecterns from which senators speak.

The Republican-dominated Legislature will face debates over whether to roll back GOP Gov. Eric Holcomb’s authority to issue public health orders to stem the COVID-19 spread that has killed more than 8,000 in Indiana and flooded the state’s hospitals with thousands of patients since a sustained surge started in September. Lawmakers must figure out a new state budget by the end of June with plenty of questions about how the coronavirus-sparked recession will impact future state tax collections.

Republican Senate President Pro Tem Rodric Bray of Martinsville said while precautions were being taken against the spread of the coronavirus among lawmakers coming from across the state, General Assembly leaders will simply have to “play it by ear” if infections hit during the legislative session that’s scheduled to last until late April.

“It is possible that we could get to a point, though, where we have staff or senators out in a number that begins to really become problematic that we may have to take a break,” Bray said. “We’re willing to do that if necessary.”

Legislative leaders are encouraging House and Senate members to wear masks, but they are only required for employees and visitors. About a half-dozen Republican House members didn’t wear masks during any or most of Monday’s House session that lasted about 40 minutes.

Republican House Speaker Todd Huston of Fishers wore a mask throughout his time presiding and urged patience as the Legislature adjusts how it conducts committee meetings and floor session.

“It would be disingenuous to say we aren’t making it up a little bit as we go along,” Huston said.

Huston, who said a fever lasting several days was his most severe symptom from a COVID-19 infection he suffered last month, and Bray repeated that they wouldn’t disclose any coronavirus infections among lawmakers, citing medical privacy concerns, although they are required to report any positive tests to legislative leaders.

The General Assembly starts with Holcomb and legislative leaders in support of proposals shielding businesses from employee or customer lawsuits over coronavirus exposure and protecting full state payments to school districts with a bypass of a law capping per-pupil funding for students who take at least half their classes virtually at 85% of full in-person student funding.

House Democratic leader Phil GiaQuinta of Fort Wayne urged action to improve Indiana’s public health standings and boost the state’s lagging teacher pay.

GiaQuinta said the temporary House chamber symbolized the dramatic changes caused by the COVID-19 pandemic.

“One thing we should not do is allow the changes in venue and procedures to become an excuse to rush legislation or become less transparent,” GiaQuinta said. “We must strive all the more for openness and efficiency in our work.”