The Indiana House is likely to relocate the majority of its legislative activity next year to rooms in a government office building adjacent to the Statehouse to ensure sufficient social distancing and maintain other safety precautions amid the coronavirus pandemic.
The details of the temporary move still are being hammered out. But members of the bipartisan, bicameral Legislative Continuity Committee endorsed a recommendation Wednesday that the 100 state representatives largely vacate the Statehouse to minimize the potential spread of COVID-19 among lawmakers and the public.
Under the tentative plan, the House would convene in single room composed of what usually is three large conference rooms at the Indiana Government Center South building, which is connected to the Statehouse by an underground tunnel.
According to Adam Brown, a director at the Legislative Services Agency, there is sufficient space in Conference Rooms A, B and C to seat each representative at an individual desk placed at least 6 feet apart from other members.
In contrast, he said only 58 lawmakers could sit at desks, with appropriate spacing, in the traditional House chamber, with the remainder forced to sit on benches without desks in the upstairs gallery where the public usually watches the proceedings, or chamber seats normally reserved for House staff or the press.
House committees also would meet at Government Center South. Though the meeting rooms would not be open to the public.
Instead, Hoosiers wishing to testify for or against legislation would be directed to a different room to speak into a camera connected to a monitor inside the committee room.
Brown said he expects the technology will allow lawmakers to question and respond to witnesses as though they are in the same room. Committee meetings and House sessions also would continue to be webcast.
However, state Rep. Ed Delaney, D-Indianapolis, observed that such formal interactions are just part of the lawmaking process in Indiana.
He said there also needs to be space set aside for lobbyists, the press and ordinary Hoosiers to informally chat up legislators about issues as they normally do in the Statehouse hallways.
The panel ultimately voted 4-1 to direct the Legislative Services Agency to begin taking steps to prepare Government Center South to host the House, including spending an estimated $300,000 on technology upgrades, voting equipment, cameras, monitors, security measures and cleaning supplies.
The sole no vote came from state Sen. Chris Garten, R-Scottsburg, who said he was concerned about the cost in light of spending cutbacks due to COVID-19 revenue impacts at the state and local level.
The committee rejected a proposal to move the Legislature to the Indiana Convention Center, a few blocks from the Statehouse, because of the greater cost and inconvenience.
State Rep. Matt Lehman, R-Berne, the committee chairman, said he hopes none of it will be needed if there is an effective vaccine or cure for COVID-19 by the time the General Assembly convenes its four-month regular session in early January.
But it would be foolish not to prepare, he said.
“We can move back here (to the Statehouse) in a day. We can’t move there in a day,” Lehman said. “Any more delays and we potentially push the ability to hold session in a timely manner.”
Meanwhile, the Senate currently is planning to space its 50 members on the chamber floor and public galleries in the Statehouse, and also to use its comparatively larger Statehouse committee rooms for something approximating a normal session.
The Legislature has not yet developed protocols for adjusting, suspending or continuing its session after a member or staffer is confirmed to be infected with COVID-19.