INDIANAPOLIS – Just two weeks into the 2021 legislative session, lawmakers moved quickly to pass high-priority bills despite COVID-19 mitigations and potential security concerns.

House Speaker Todd Huston, R-Fishers, said he expected schools to see full funding from the General Assembly, even if districts taught virtually during the pandemic.

“I am excited to see some bills move… and (House Bill 1003) was on second reading (Thursday). We anticipate that passing overwhelmingly next week and head over to our Senate colleagues,” Huston said.

The House has only met once a week to limit members’ exposure to one another in the Indiana Government Center – South, where they moved after determining they couldn’t socially distance in their regular chamber.

Another key priority – reforming Indiana’s police accountability system – received bipartisan and law enforcement support during a Tuesday hearing. HB 1006 would mandate de-escalation training, prohibit chokeholds and ease record sharing between departments to weed out “bad actors.”

“It’s a really good bill (that) I think honors and supports the law enforcement profession,” Huston said.

The final aspect of the bill – funding for body cameras – will need to be heard by the budget committee. Schools and small businesses will receive $150 million and $30 million, respectively, under a proposal for one-time grants to offset learning or financial losses related to COVID-19.

The $150 million one-time grant would support summer learning for students who fell behind because of virtual learning and the $30 million would support small business owners, especially the hard-hit hospitality industry. If passed as designed, funding will become available as soon as Gov. Eric Holcomb signs the bills into law.

In the Senate, both SB 1, which protects businesses from COVID-19 liability, and SB 2, which fully funds schools which taught virtually, may soon go to a full vote in the chamber.

But bills related directly to COVID-19 and prioritized to move quickly hit unexpected roadblocks by the very people testifying for the bill.

SB 74, authored by Sen. Dennis Kruse, R-Auburn, would prevent employers from mandating vaccination as a condition of employment. Current law allows only healthcare employers to require vaccines.

At least 62 people came to the statehouse, many in support of the bill, but they crammed into the testimony room, meant to hold only a few, socially distanced people, without masks. Bill opponents, some from the medical field, left without testifying rather than crowding in the room where opponents booed facts and the committee chair, who cut off repetitive testimony.

Sen. Rodric Bray, R-Martinsville, said that those actions meant the bill couldn’t move forward and had to be tabled.

“The irony (here) is that people that disrupted that committee hearing were there in favor of the bill and the bill didn’t get moved as a result of their activity,” Bray said. “I understand that there was some disruption by people when somebody else was there testifying (that) they didn’t agree with and that is not acceptable. We’re here to have civil, substantive debate.”

Because of these situations, leaders have to consider whether Capitol Police should enforce mask wearing, which applies to everyone in the statehouse except for legislators. To comply with COVID standards, lawmakers and the public testify in separate rooms and committee chairs can’t enforce the rules.

“I spend about half of my day talking about masks and not talking about policy,” Bray said. “We don’t want our process to be derailed by something like this.”

Bill authors may consider whether to amend the bill to exclude healthcare settings, which can currently mandate immunizations, or limit to only the COVID-19 vaccines.

Security concerns also cloud potential action next week after an FBI bulletin last week warned of possible “armed protests” in every state capitol.

House Minority Rep. Phil GiaQuinta, D-Fort Wayne, said that caucus leaders were to meet with Indiana State Police Superintendent Doug Carter Friday since many in the General Assembly had worries.

“It’s obviously a concern so we need to be on high alert,” GiaQuinta said.

Bray said he didn’t plan to suspend or postpone committees and Senate sessions unless there was a direct threat. On Friday, the FBI reported that no “specific and substantial threat” had been made against the state capitol or other government buildings.

“I think you could say that there will be a little bit of heightened security next week – a little stronger show of our population of state troopers,” Bray said. “Just to make sure that things run smoothly and they stay safe.”

Some of the legislators’ biggest responsibilities still lie ahead, with both the two-year budget and redistricting happening this year. Holcomb released his budget proposal earlier this week, seeking a two-year increase for K-12 education, restoring Indiana’s reserves and paying off debt obligations.

Budget writers will finalize the budget after they receive another revenue forecast, scheduled for April.
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