Legislators tackle issues stemming from COVID-19


The Indiana General Assembly is working on several bills that are the direct result of COVID-19.

One bill that went through the Legislature quickly was Senate Bill 1, which was signed into law on Thursday and was made retroactive to March 2020.

The bill would give individuals, employers, businesses, municipalities and school districts protections from lawsuits concerning someone being exposed to the COVID-19 virus on their property or during an activity they organized.

“This is not just a business bill. It protects citizens, businesses, churches, schools, local government, nonprofit groups, everybody,” State Sen. Mark Messmer, R-Jasper, said during a legislative update that he, State Sen. Erin Houchin, R-Salem, and State Rep. Steve Bartels, R-Eckerty, shared Saturday morning via Zoom. It was arranged by the Jasper Chamber of Commerce. It was not open to the public, but will be aired on television Tuesday afternoon.

“This virtual forum that we’re working out of today is just another casualty of COVID,” Messmer said. “We can’t can’t meet like we normally did for legislative breakfast updates. But thank goodness we have the technology to do this.”

Legislators talked about several bills involving government oversight in light of the pandemic.

Senate Bill 407 would require the governor to get legislative input on emergency executive orders.

“During the global pandemic during the coronavirus pandemic, really the Legislature had no ability to weigh in on decisions that were made at the executive level.,” Houchin said. “We represent our citizens who were faced with these restrictions. We should be able to weigh in on their behalf.”

According to the bill, if the emergency executive order affects less than 10 counties, the governor can make that declaration. If it affects 10 counties or more, the governor would have to coordinate with legislators.

“The first nine counties that are declared an emergency, he could operate under that,” Houchin said. “But once the 10th county would take effect, then that would kick in this legislation, which would have some legislative approval.”

To get that consent and to have declaration extensions, the governor would have to call the Legislature back into session to get their approval.

“If he doesn’t extend the executive order or if he tries to extend the executive order and doesn’t call us back into session, then that would end the executive order,” Houchin said, “and he has to operate under our current laws.”

Messmer said he has heard from critics about bill, asking whey the General Assembly is trying to usurp the governor’s emergency order authority. “It’s the General Assembly that gave the governor the Title 10 emergency order authority,” he said. “All of the provisions of authority that he is given and local health departments are given in Title 10 come from our granting them that emergency order status. We are simply updating the process of Title 10 emergency order status in Senate bill 5 and Senate Bill 407.”

Senate Bill 5 allows anyone who is subject to an enforcement action by a local health department to appeal their case to the local legislative body, which in Dubois County, would be the county commissioners.

“It puts in place a check and balance,” Messmer said. “So if the health department or health officer is going to put an enforcement action in place, or there’s any chance that they would go to a business or a church or a school and issue a shutdown order or a penalty of some kind, this would give that recipient of the enforcement action the ability to appeal it to the commissioners.”

Senate Bill 198 would allow for increased penalties for those convicted of rioting that causes death, serious bodily injury or property damage. It would also add conspiracy to commit a crime in a riot as a charge if a person is proven to have orchestrated the crimes.

“Around here all the protests were peaceful protests,” Messmer said. “What we saw happening in Indianapolis was just tragic. There was there was arson, attempted rape, assault, two people were shot and killed, other people were injured, looting. There was 112 businesses that incurred $8 million worth of damage over over the 29th and 30th of May, two nights of really destructive rioting. It was not just protesting. It was people who came in with the intention of stirring them into violent behavior.”

In addition, if a local prosecutor decides to not follow through on charges, a person would be able to sue the local government for damages that occur to their to their property “if the low local government shows reckless failure to protect the property damage during the riot,” Messmer said.

This bill does not encroach on the public’s right to protest. “If people want the right to protest, they’ve got it,” Messmer said. “Their First Amendment rights are protected by Senate Bill 198.”

Protection for people who choose to not take the COVID-19 vaccine is addressed in House Bill 1488, which Bartels co-authored. The bill states that employers cannot force their employees to take vaccinations of non-approved vaccines, he said.

“A lot of people are not understanding that the current vaccine is an emergency-use vaccine. It’s not fully approved,” Bartels said. “So until it’s that way, we were not going to allow employers to force this vaccine on employees as a matter of employment.”

Senate Bill 353 will require voters to provide their driver’s license number or the last four digits of their social security number when they fill out a application requesting an absentee ballot.

“During the pandemic you were able to obtain an absentee ballot by mail or online without providing proof of identity,” Houchin said. “We have a voter ID law. When you show up to vote at the polls, you have to show your ID to verify who you are. So this is just an election security measure.”

SB 353 also reiterates the legislative branch’s authority when it comes to holding elections.

“We saw across the country, there were several states [in which] election laws were changed by executive branches or by courts,” Houchin said. “We are making it clear in Senate Bill 353 that the only body that can change the time, manner and place of an election is the General Assembly as was constitutionally required.”

The legislators all said the virus brought to light many issues that they didn’t see beforehand.

“Many things happened during the pandemic,” Houchin said. “Hindsight is always 2020.”

WJTS-TV will air all comments Bartels, Houchin and Messmer made at Saturday’s legislative breakfast. That will run at 1 p.m. Tuesday.

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