The Indiana General Assembly almost certainly will make it through the first week of its 2022 session that convenes Tuesday without a COVID-19 outbreak taking down a significant number of the 100 state representatives and 50 state senators.

Beyond that, however, it's anyone's guess.

Despite surging COVID-19 cases, hospitalizations, and deaths across the Hoosier State, the Republican-led House and Senate are doing away with the face mask mandate, plexiglass barriers, and social distancing that last year kept the Legislature's annual meeting from becoming a superspreader event.

"Back to normal," said House Speaker Todd Huston, R-Fishers. "We're going to get in, get our work done, and try to move aggressively."

At the top of the House Republican agenda is a proposal that would, in effect, prohibit Indiana businesses from enforcing a COVID-19 vaccine requirement on their employees, even if the company owner believes a vaccinated workforce is best for the business.

State Rep. Matt Lehman, R-Berne, said House Bill 1001 will ensure Hoosiers who don't want to be vaccinated against COVID-19 are protected against losing their jobs because they failed to comply with their employer's vaccine mandate.

Lehman's proposal so far has attracted 55 co-sponsors, including Huston, and Northwest Indiana state Reps. Julie Olthoff, R-Crown Point; Jim Pressel, R-Rolling Prairie; Hal Slager, R-Schererville; and Ed Soliday, R-Valparaiso.

It's unequivocally opposed by the GOP's traditional allies in the state's business and medical communities, along with top Senate Republicans and Republican Gov. Eric Holcomb — setting up a potential intraparty civil war with the lives of millions of unvaccinated Hoosiers on the line.

"The message from the business community when it comes to employer vaccination policies is: Please stay out of our business operations," said Kevin Brinegar, Indiana Chamber of Commerce president.

"Hoosier employers are in the best position to determine what the best vaccination policy is for the safety of their employees, customers and patients."

Lehman's measure also is derided by vaccine opponents who insist the plan is inadequate so long as it fails to prohibit all COVID-19 vaccine mandates at Indiana workplaces.

Senate Bill 114, sponsored by state Sen. Jim Tomes, R-Wadesville, largely addresses those concerns by essentially making the unvaccinated a protected class under Indiana's anti-discrimination statutes, a status the General Assembly so far has declined to explicitly extend to LGBTQ individuals who don't even choose their sexual orientation.

Meanwhile, state Sen. Ed Charbonneau, R-Valparaiso, has filed Senate Bill 3 to enable the governor to end his monthly public health emergency declarations by simply putting into state law the provisions needed for Indiana to continue providing COVID-19 vaccines to all eligible individuals and for the state to receive pandemic-enhanced federal assistance.

Hot-button issues

Beyond COVID-19, Statehouse Republicans appear determined to follow their GOP colleagues in other states in ferreting out real and imagined threats to school children allegedly hiding in history books and school libraries.

Republican Attorney General Todd Rokita is leading the charge on eliminating Critical Race Theory and other "Marxist ideologies" he claims are "consistently being backdoored into Indiana classrooms" — despite Republicans controlling the Legislature, governor's office, and state education establishment for the past decade.

State Sen. Scott Baldwin, R-Noblesville, has filed Senate Bill 167 to promote "transparency" in schools by making all curricular material available for parental review, as well as creating curricular materials advisory committees consisting of parents, teachers and community members to guide local school boards on all curriculum decisions.

In addition, Baldwin's proposal would prohibit public schools and teachers' colleges from addressing specific concepts that divide or stereotype people based on sex, race, ethnicity, religion, color, national origin or political affiliation.

"Over the past several months, I have been meeting with parents, teachers and various education stakeholders who are frustrated with divisive ideologies creeping into classrooms across the country and in our state," Baldwin said.

"I authored this legislation with the intent of making sure parents can be more aware of and involved with what their children are learning in our public schools."

At the same time, Baldwin's Senate Bill 144 would allow school board candidates to run under a political party label, instead of maintaining Indiana's tradition of nonpartisan school board elections, and bar teachers and union officials from serving on school boards where they work.

Other hot-button issues almost certain to come up during the 10-week session include a total prohibition on abortion in anticipation of a U.S. Supreme Court ruling permitting such a statute, eliminating the state's licensing requirement for carrying a handgun in public, and limiting bail opportunities for accused criminals.

The House also is expected to push for an unspecified tax cut to return some of the state's surging tax revenues to the Hoosiers who generated them. Senate leaders have indicated they would prefer to wait until the 2023 state budget session before taking up that issue.

NWI legislation

There's no single policy proposal for which the 13 state representatives and seven state senators serving Northwest Indiana have agreed to advocate as a delegation.

In fact, Region lawmakers as a group largely have overperformed in recent years by securing hundreds of millions of dollars in state funding for the South Shore Line expansion projects, reconstruction of the state police post in Lowell and the Westville Correctional Center, and recently helping to win $50 million in state READI grants for quality-of-place improvements across Northwest Indiana.

As a result, each Northwest Indiana lawmaker largely is pursuing his or her own agenda this year.

Some are focused on hyperlocal issues, such as the plan by state Sen. Eddie Melton, D-Gary, to end the state takeover of the Gary Community School Corp., or the effort by state Rep. Pat Boy, D-Michigan City, to clean up the utility coal ash ponds located adjacent to Lake Michigan in Michigan City.

Others are working to craft a statewide plan to transition to renewable energy resources (Soliday), reduce what Hoosiers pay for hospital services and prescription drugs (Charbonneau), or improve safety in highway work zones by deploying speed enforcement cameras (Pressel, Soliday, and state Rep. Chuck Moseley, D-Portage).

Region Democrats generally are united in their support for legalizing marijuana in Indiana. But the governor has said he will not sign such a measure until the drug no longer is classified as a controlled substance by the federal government.

The remaining Northwest Indiana lawmakers are expected to reveal their plans and legislative goals in the days ahead.

The deadline for legislators to file proposals for new state laws is Friday in the Senate and Jan. 11 in the House.

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