(The Center Square) – Indiana’s new speaker of the House of Representatives said he’s open to considering bills in the session starting next week that would give the legislature a greater say in handling something like a pandemic.
“Senator [Rodric] Bray and I have communicated with the governor throughout this experience,” Rep. Todd Huston, R-Fishers, told The Center Square. “I think there’s been a ton of legislative input, but that doesn’t mean that we shouldn’t learn from something like this … and so we will have bills addressing what do we do in a circumstance or event like this in the future as far as making sure there’s legislative input.”
Huston was sworn in as speaker March 9, taking over from long-time speaker Brian Bosma. It was just three days after Republican Gov. Eric Holcomb first declared a health emergency in the state.
The legislature adjourned a few days later and did not reconvene until Nov. 17, when they met for what is known as “organization day.” It will convene officially Jan. 5 for the start of the 2021 legislative session.
Many have questioned why the Indiana General Assembly didn’t have more of a role in deciding whether the state should shut down businesses and impose restrictions on its citizens.
But according to article 4 of the Indiana Constitution, only the governor can call a special session of the legislature: The leaders of the legislature don’t have that power.
Huston said he never asked Holcomb to call a special session, saying as speaker he was able to have a lot of input in decisions that have been made in the state’s handling of the pandemic.
“He and I have had constant dialogue through this time,” he said. “You know, he’s had to make some tough decisions. That doesn’t mean I have to agree with every single one of them. But, you know, we’ve worked together on the CARES funding, we’ve worked together on a lot of different things throughout this.”
Holcomb has extended the health emergency 10 times, most recently on Dec. 30. He’s issued a total of 51 executive orders related to COVID-19 since March, which have included the “Hunker Down Hoosiers” order and the mask mandate, which says everyone in the state must wear a mask in public places, even outdoors, when social distancing can’t be maintained.
But there’s been confusion about the force of those orders, and how they compare to actual laws.
“They’re not laws,” Huston said this week of the governor’s executive orders, adding that people have come up to him, complaining that the government is demanding they do things, and that he tells them it’s not an actual demand, and that it’s up to localities to enforce any such mandates.
Huston just recently recovered from COVID-19, and says he feels fortunate to have only had a “light brush” with the virus.
“Why I even got tested was because I held a fever longer,” he said. “Normally, I’m one of these people that gets a fever and breaks it within 24 hours. I didn’t break it the first night, I didn’t break it the second night, and I was still like doing the shiver, cold-hot thing and I thought, that’s not good.
“The biggest thing was just a different level of fatigue,” he added. “I took a nap one day which is pretty unheard of … I just couldn’t keep my eyes open.”
Overall, he said it didn’t feel much different than any other kind of virus, but that it lasted longer “and the fatigue was different.”
The bills the House of Representatives will consider starting next week on the handling of emergencies, they’ll probably look at defining the word “emergency,” Huston said, which is not defined in the state’s “Emergency Management and Disaster Law” the governor has cited as the one that gives him broad powers during a declared emergency.
In its lawsuit filed this month, Yergy’s State Road BBQ said the COVID-19 pandemic no longer qualifies as an emergency given that it’s gone on for nine months, and that the governor, therefore, has no power to issue mandates related to it.
Huston says he agrees there should be a provision for the legislature to get involved in a situation like a pandemic “when it reaches a certain point…” but qualifies this by saying the legislature isn’t set up to act quickly.
“We’ve got to find the right blend and flexibility,” he said, “because again, it doesn’t work that if there’s an emergency you’re going to wait to get the legislative body back. As a member of a legislative body, I want to be involved, but I also know some of our limitations. We don’t snap and get together.”
Huston said he did talk with Holcomb about the possibility of a special session, indicating that the decision to not call the legislature into a special session in the spring or summer, or even fall, was a mutual one.
“I look at other states in which there was no legislature input… The governor and I had conversations about a special session. There are other states where the governor wouldn’t even hear that conversation or allow for legislative input.”