Indiana lawmakers plan session shifts amid virus worries

("Indiana Statehouse" by Shawna Pierson, CC BY 2.0)

INDIANAPOLIS (AP): Indiana lawmakers are preparing to partially move some of their 2021 legislative session activity out of the Statehouse over coronavirus concerns.

A joint House-Senate committee on Wednesday endorsed a plan aimed at allowing the 100-member House to hold its floor sessions and committee meetings in the auditorium and conference rooms of a state office building next to the Statehouse in downtown Indianapolis.

The 50-member state Senate is planning to keep meeting in its Statehouse chamber but will convert its public gallery into seating for senators in order to allow sufficient distancing when the legislative session starts in January.

Proposals presented Wednesday would have House committees meet in government center conference rooms that are larger than those available in the Statehouse, which first opened in 1888. Those testifying about bills being considered, however, would have to speak by video from other rooms and the public could only watch floor proceedings from video monitors outside where the House and Senate would be meeting.

Committee members decided against using the nearby Indiana Convention Center for the legislative session, citing concerns about cost and the further distance from the Statehouse. But the convention center could be used as a location for the governor’s annual State of the State speech to all 150 lawmakers.

The preliminary plan would have House members meeting for debates and votes inside three conference rooms combined into a single space inside the Indiana Government Center South building, which is connected by tunnels to the Statehouse.

“The government center offers us an alternative to being in one space as a chamber,” said Republican Rep. Matt Lehman of Berne, who is chairman of the Legislative Continuity Committee. “We can move back here in a day, but we can’t move there in a day.”

Democratic Rep. Ed DeLaney of Indianapolis said he wasn’t certain the convention center should be eliminated from consideration as the Senate hasn’t yet tried having its members work from the public gallery.

“I would not want to be one of the people in the balcony, with my laptop on my lap and papers on the floor and somebody trying to come down the aisle to hand me a paper,” DeLaney said.

Coronavirus concerns have led to changes for state lawmakers across the country.

For instance, the Michigan Legislature has been meeting this summer in the state Capitol, with some House members sitting in the public gallery for additional spacing. Illinois lawmakers moved to Springfield’s convention center for its meetings in May.

Indiana lawmakers haven’t yet set rules on the wearing of face masks and whether legislators or staff members will be required to undergo COVID-19 testing.

The House chamber is typically a crowded place during legislative sessions, with House members packed near each other at 100 desks and dozens of staff members and guests often on the floor as well.

A review determined up to 120 people could fit throughout the House floor’s desks and seats in the balconies and gallery with six-foot distancing, said Adam Baker of the nonpartisan Legislative Services Agency. The government center conference rooms could accommodate 110 people with desks.

“In no way am I suggesting, just to be clear, that this will be like a normal session,” Baker said. “This is all about space. As you socially distance, it is all about space availability.”

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