INDIANAPOLIS — After eight months away from the Indiana Statehouse chambers, lawmakers returned to the capitol for Organization Day to mark the beginning of the 2021 session.
During that time, COVID-19 has infected over a quarter million Hoosiers and killed more than 5,000.
“Sadly we have learned that our poor public health has a disproportionate, negative impact during a global pandemic,” Rep. Todd Huston, R-Fishers, said after he was sworn in as House speaker Tuesday. “We have to create incentives and policies to help Hoosiers be healthier.”
Huston also confirmed that he and the House Republicans supported full funding for K-12 schools in the 2020-2021 academic year. Across the Statehouse, Sen. Pro Tem Rodric Bray, R-Martinsville, didn’t make that same commitment.
“It’s certainly not our expectation to cut it this time – we’d like to give it a little bump,” Bray said. “But I couldn’t really talk specifics about that until at least we get the December (revenue) forecast.”
Other priorities for both chambers for the 2021 budget-writing session included liability protection, which Huston and Bray said would be passed quickly in January when the House reconvenes.
Following a summer of nationwide protests following the police killing of unarmed Black Americans, Huston said there is work to be done.
“Our leadership team pledges to continue working with law enforcement and other key stakeholders, including members of the Black Caucus, to foster discussion and solutions on this important topic,” Huston said.
Sen. Greg Taylor, D-Indianapolis, made opening remarks as the first Black leader of a caucus in Indiana and also emphasized the need for Indiana to address these justice issues.
“I am not and you will never hear me say that all law enforcement is bad. They are needed; they are important,” Taylor said. “But if we close our eyes to the fact that we need to have a better relationship with those communities of color then we close our eyes to everybody.”
Taylor highlighted how the virus had exposed systemic problems in Indiana, including health disparities between white and Black Hoosiers, the lack of broadband access and more.
That morning, Taylor emphasized the need to push for redistricting reform but didn’t mention the issue on the floor. State legislators will receive population data from the federal government in the spring and draw new district maps for representatives in 2021.
Though lawmakers voted to ease virtual participation and digital copies of bill amendments, some aspects of the session remained unclear, especially concerning what would happen if a lawmaker tested positive.
Sen. Pro Tem Rodric Bray, R-Martinsville, said that state senators would follow health guidelines to quarantine if someone tested positive but didn’t approve of members voting virtually.
“We’ve always put a premium on you to be here to do your work; to vote and participate; to ask questions,” Bray said, adding that he had privacy concerns about identifying specific positive members. “There’s a balance between respecting the privacy of a senator and their health issues … (and) the people that work around them.”
Rep. Robin Shackleford, D-Indianapolis, said she learned during Organization Day that her sister had tested positive for the virus after a family vacation.
“We’re going to see this numerous times,” Shackleford said during a media call via Zoom. “I don’t think we have any rules or policy in place on when people should be tested, when they have to come back and report that testing. … Those are some of the things that we wanted to have conversations about.”
Shackleford said she would go straight home to quarantine at the conclusion of the Zoom call where she appeared masked.
Huston, speaking for his chamber earlier that afternoon, said the delays in getting testing results made a mandatory testing regime unlikely at the time but said, “If we can get to that point (of faster turnarounds) we will see if there’s potential to utilize that.”
The 2021 legislative session is scheduled to begin Jan. 4.