New Indiana House Speaker Todd Huston recalls his thoughts as he walked out of the Indiana House of Representatives on March 11 with the COVID-19 pandemic just beginning to get a death grip on his state.
“I remember leaving this chamber believing something historic could be taking shape,” he said.
On Sunday, the White House coronavirus task force posted this warning as the U.S. death toll neared 250,000 and Indiana closed in on 5,000: “There is now aggressive, unrelenting, expanding broad community spread across the country, reaching most counties, without evidence of improvement but rather, further deterioration. Current mitigation efforts are inadequate and must be increased to flatten the curve to sustain the health system for both COVID and non-COVID emergencies.”
This warning came as hospitals are being swamped and front line medical workers are disheartened, drained and weary, while folks ranging from nurses to the governor pleaded with people to wear masks. “I want to thank all of the incredible health care professionals, who continue on the front lines of this pandemic,” Huston, R-Fishers, said. ”Doctors, nurses, and so many others in hospitals and health care facilities across the state; they have fought and are fighting so hard for each of us.”
Speaker Huston and his Senate colleague, President Pro Tem Rod Bray, are the new tandem leading the General Assembly while facing a once-in-a-century lethal pandemic that has set many of its 500,000 small businesses teetering and seen the state mow through much of its $2.1 billion surplus, while its jobless rate has spasmed from 3.2% in February, to 16.9% in April and back to 6.2% in October.
During the Spanish Flu Pandemic of 1918-19, presidents, governors and speakers played inconspicuous roles. Restrictions and remedies were in the hands of county health officials. A century later, in the days of 24-hour cable news cycles and social media, the buck stops at the desks of governors, mayors and, now, legislative leaders. (President Trump says he bears no responsibility.)
“I severely underestimated the magnitude of the impact of COVID-19,” Huston told the House chamber after being elected by bipartisan acclamation on Tuesday. He is now poised for history and appears to be borrowing a page from Rahm Emanuel, former Chicago mayor and presidential chief of staff, who once said, “You never want a serious crisis to go to waste. And what I mean by that is an opportunity to do things that you think you could not do before.”
Huston explained, “As we continue to adjust to life living in a pandemic, it would be foolish not to consider what we’ve learned from it and what we can do better. We should never strive to return to a life similar to that of March 11, 2020, as that would mean we have not learned from one of the most monumental and informative experiences of our lifetime.”
Those lessons include the relative poor health of Hoosiers, the need for “nimbleness and flexibility” of the state’s approach to K-12 education and more broadband to support hybrid approaches to schooling, as well as to support businesses. “We need a wide array of options for all students,” Huston said. “We will work diligently to provide more of those options to families in the future. Our students have faced an incredibly challenging eight months, and we must do everything we can to help them get back on track to a successful outcome they and their families desire.”
This week, Huston and Bray were signaling they were preparing to take the lessons from the 2020-21 pandemic to new levels. A business, school and not-for-profit liability reprieve is likely to pass with bipartisan support and head to Gov. Eric Holcomb’s desk sometime in January or early February. Huston pledged 100% funding for all schools. At Monday’s Indiana Chamber legislative preview, all four caucus leaders seemed prepared to enact a cigarette tax to cut down on bad health exposed by the pandemic.
There seemed to be general consensus among Bray and Huston with Democrat leaders Rep. Phil GiaQuinta and Sen. Greg Taylor on using federal CARES Act funds to plug billions of dollars the state owes the federal government on the depleted Unemployment Insurance fund. The Indianapolis Star reported in September the state had paid out roughly $5 billion to 157,500 Hoosiers under the state and federal programs between March 1 and Aug. 29.
On the cig tax, which is designed to cut smoking in a state with one of the highest rates in the nation, Huston said, “On the budget side, to clarify, I think the concern is how do those dollars get used? It’s been slow to reduce rates, but it will be a declining revenue source.” Bray added, “I agree with the speaker. We want to be very thoughtful on how the money will be spent on the front end,” adding that he wants it to be directed to “improve health standards.”
Huston was reflective, at one point saying, “One of the big takeaways is what do we learn from the pandemic? Great companies have adapted to the pandemic. Government has to be the same way.”