COLUMBIA CITY — Indiana’s legislators are halfway through session, and Whitley County’s representatives offered updates on some of what has been happening so far in a recent meeting with the community.
Speaking at the meeting were State Representatives Chris Judy and David Abbott and Senator Andy Zay.
They reported that 149 bills were passed out of the House and sent to the Senate with an additional 168 from the Senate making its way to the House.
Top on many people’s minds is the emergency status of COVID, how that has changed this year’s session and what is in store for the future.
Rep. Abbott said that in his experience tables are large and legislators are spread out, but added he is looking forward to returning to the Statehouse Chambers. Senator Zay said the biggest evolution was the process of committee hearings. Those wishing to testify in front of a committee do so through a video call, but then appear before the committee one by one in person.
All three could agree on the desire to “get back to communities being communities again,” said Zay. Part of this means moving past the emergency status and finding a new way forward.
“There’s lots of ways we can work our way out of this,” added Zay.
It’s been just over a year since COVID was given an emergency status, and Abbott reported he felt the end of the status “was in sight.”
Abbott added he commended the governor for doing his due diligence to keep the community safe, but advocated for the idea that legislators should be involved in the decisions that lead to establishing a statewide emergency.
A House bill being considered would set out that once an Executive Order is in place, a small legislative council made up of senators and representatives could come together to declare an emergency session. This bill would also allow churches to continue worship at their discretion under the emergency status.
“This would allow legislators to be at the table to discuss the orders and some of the issues that may come to light,” said Abbott.
A further bill to make it through the Senate, if approved, would give a citizen the chance to appeal to commissioners during an emergency order.
One of the biggest changes to local government during the pandemic has been how to have meetings open to the public, but how to do so safely. It led many to offer video meetings and live recordings, and during the meeting legislators said they were looking at ways to help local governments move forward and continue to offer some of these options for the public in a “limited fashion.”
A bill that has garnered quite a bit of attention is House Bill 1381. If approved, it would set out that decisions on where to locate solar and wind farms would be up to the discretion of state leaders. Abbott, Judy and Zay expressed opposition to this idea.
“I’d like to leave that as local control,” said Judy.
Zay said, “I’m not sure where the intent of this bill is coming from,” adding, “we’ll be sure to give it its due diligence but it is critically important to be in local control.”
Abbott added, “we don’t need the state to decide.”
Another major project local legislators have been focusing on is expanding broadband internet coverage.
Zay acknowledged that through the pandemic more students have been home utilizing the internet for schooling, parents have been working from home using video conferencing, and other internet tools and the pandemic has also led to an increase in telehealth conferencing. All of these combined presented the need for greater and more reliable coverage throughout the state.
This is also a budgetary year for the state. All three men acknowledged the importance of maintaining a balanced budget, and, even through the pandemic, this year a balanced budget has been presented for approval thanks to the reserves already set up by the state and its past fiscal responsibility.
All three legislators hoped to offer another community update at the close of session in April. They are expected to return to the Statehouse in September or October for a special session.