COVID

INDIANAPOLIS — Changes are being made to how interim study committees are run because of the COVID-19 pandemic — and some adjustments are causing concern by limiting public access.

Individuals who wish to submit materials for review by a committee, including documents, written or pre-recorded testimony and exhibits, must now contact the Legislative Services Agency at least five days before the committee meets if they want to be heard.

A person wishing to provide live testimony will now have to do so in a separate room of the Statehouse. If the Statehouse becomes closed to the public, only pre-registered witnesses will be able to give testimony.

Stephen Key, executive director of the Hoosier State Press Association — an association of newspapers across the state that Key represents on open records and access to government issues — said this change could limit testimony, because individuals may not intend to testify but decide to speak or ask questions based on members’ comments.

The ability of the press to approach committee members with follow-up questions could also be hindered by the new social distancing protocol, Key said. Members of the media will either watch from a different room in the Statehouse or from a remote location with the livestream.

The ease of having summer study sessions live-streamed on the Indiana General Assembly website could lead to more viewers from the public, said Andy Downs, a political science professor at Purdue University Fort Wayne. While the meetings were live-streamed prior to the COVID-19 pandemic, this option may become more widely used as people follow social distancing protocol.

In late July, the Legislative Council — led by House Speaker Todd Huston, R-Fishers, and Senate President Pro Tempore Rodric Bray, R-Martinsville — created the new safety precautions, including the introduction of virtual or hybrid meetings.

These new regulations represent a short-term solution for study committees while they convene to review a range of topics, including roads and transportation, corrections and criminal code, public safety and military affairs, agriculture and natural resources and public health. Many of these will have a specific focus on COVID-19 responses.

Legislative Services Agency Executive Director George Angelone said decisions for the legislative session in January are being addressed “one step at a time.”

Longer-term solutions are being sought by the Legislative Continuity Committee as COVID-19 continues to spread. The committee is meeting at 9 a.m. Wednesday to discuss alternate locations for the Senate and House that will allow for social distancing. The committee recently toured the Indiana Convention Center and Indiana Government Center as potential sites.

At their last meeting, the members voted in a 5-1 decision to limit legislators to filing 10 bills in the session and debated extending Organization Day, which is in November.

The continuity committee will also discuss session logistics and future committee meeting dates. This is in advance of the 2021 legislative session, where redistricting and the state’s two-year budget will be key topics.

The Wednesday meeting can be viewed live on the Indiana General Assembly website.

Those who wish to testify at the interim study committees should notify the Legislative Services Agency by filling out an electronic form on the Indiana General Assembly website or call (317) 233-0696

Taylor Wooten is a reporter for TheStatehouseFile.com, a news website powered by Franklin College journalism students.

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