New Statehouse COVID-19 Regulations Cause Challenges For Reporters, Lobbyists

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New Statehouse COVID-19 Regulations Cause Challenges For Reporters, Lobbyists

 Taylor Wooten
TheStatehouseFile.com

INDIANAPOLIS—Kerwin Olson was in his 14th session lobbying at the Indiana Statehouse for the Citizens Action Coalition when the COVID-19 pandemic began. Now, in his 15th session, he’s trying to figure out how to continue his work with new restrictions.

The CAC advocates for clean, affordable energy for low-income customers and lobbies regularly at the Indiana Statehouse.

“That’s where the action is,” Olson said. “That’s where you are able to interact with legislators, interact with staff, interact with other lobbyists, have your finger on the pulse, and understand and learn what’s what’s going on.”

Kerwin Olson, center, holds a sign that reads, “Don’t block the sun,” at a rally by the Citizens Action Coalition on the steps of the Statehouse. Olson and his organization are not sure how to continue advocating for a clean environment during the COVID-19 pandemic.

Olson has one-on-one conversations with legislators in Statehouse hallways, elevators and outside committee meeting rooms. So lobbyists like him, whom he jokingly called “hallway rats,” have a difficult time now.

Olson said his organization is navigating how to continue lobbying while protecting the health and wellbeing of their friends and families.

“It feels almost like a dereliction of duty when I’m not down there,” he said.

Olson said his organization hoped the start of the 2021 legislative session would be delayed, partially because the gathering of legislators in the Statehouse violates state and local COVID-19 capacity regulations.

Rep. Ed DeLaney, D-Indianapolis, was part of the Legislative Continuity Committee that met this fall. The group worked to find a way to safely continue the 2021 session during the pandemic. But he left unsatisfied with what the group accomplished.

DeLaney said the only substantive decision the committee made was to move the House of Representatives chamber to the Indiana Government Center South. It also limited the number of bills filed to 10 per legislator.

Sen. Michael Crider, R-Greenfield, a co-chair of the Legislative Continuity Committee, said the group prioritized flexibility in their decisions. No mask requirement was created, and legislators weren’t tested before the beginning of the session.

“We decided ultimately that, you know, we’re all adults,” Crider said. “If somebody had an exposure outside of the legislature or if we had somebody that started to feel ill that we would depend on self-reporting. And I think that’s sufficient.”

While committees will still take public testimony, those people now have to sign up before arriving at the Statehouse rather than at the Statehouse the day of the committee meeting. DeLaney and Olson said this could limit the amount of input because lobbyists and citizens often don’t decide to speak until discussion begins.

DeLaney told an anecdote in which a friend of his attended a committee meeting with no intention to testify but became interested and offered intelligent information on the topic.

“And that’ll never happen this year,” he said.

DeLaney said his biggest concern is that the legislature has done little to remedy this problem, and he listed solutions like allowing people to submit pre-filed testimony through email or short videos. But he admitted he didn’t know how this would work technologically.

Another barrier to public input, DeLaney said, is the fact that the legislature doesn’t hear testimony on issues, just on bills. So the 10-per-legislator limit on the number of bills that can be filed this year could further limit discussion.

“One of the fundamental things we could do that we’ve needed to do for years is we need to have hearings that are not exclusively on a particular bill,” DeLaney said.

He used the example of potentially having a hearing on nursing homes to decide if there is a legislative solution to the problems occurring at lon- term care facilities.

To get more public input, DeLaney said he has attended Zoom meetings that lobbyists have hosted for education issues. He said he has considered hosting his own Zoom meetings on topics like teacher pay but argued these events would be better if they were institutionalized within the legislature.

Crider said he is adapting to the changes by having meetings through Zoom or in the hallway outside of his office, adding that lobbyists might prefer the opportunity to have video meetings with legislators in the comfort of their own offices.

DeLaney also said he fears that regardless of the pandemic, the public may not have much influence due to the Republican supermajority.

“The important decisions will be made in the back room and made by a very small number of people in the leadership,” DeLaney said. “So it’s hard for me to say exactly how much is being missed.”

In response, Crider said those who wish to testify have always had to be physically present at the Statehouse.

With the session rolling on, Olson said he is trying to figure out how to safely continue advocating for clean energy.

“We’re going to participate to the extent that we can and hope that leadership down there is being sincere about their desire to have a fair and transparent process,” Olson said.

DeLaney said he saw between six and eight lobbyists outside the new House chamber in the Indiana Government Center South on the first day of the session and that they seemed “kind of lost.”

“I guess they can see us on TV, but they can’t stand outside the glass window and wave to us and pass notes, things like that,” DeLaney said. “So I think their function in this session will be significantly limited.”

Crider said he fears progress may be slow this session, but the legislature will pass a budget and get the necessary work done.

“We’re doing our very best to try to keep people healthy in the work that we need to get accomplished,” Crider said.

Journalists who follow Statehouse beats have also had work interrupted by the pandemic changes

Brandon Smith, Statehouse bureau chief for Indiana Public Broadcasting, has been reporting on legislative sessions since 2011.

Like Olson, Smith said the biggest barrier to his work is the inability to meet with  lawmakers one on one.

Statehouse journalists have been barred from approaching senators on the chamber floor before and after session for a while, Smith said, much to their dismay and frustration. Now that rule has expanded to the House of Representatives in their temporary chamber.

“The House maintained its long-standing tradition of, before and after the houses gaveled in and out of session, you can go up to a lawmaker and ask to talk to them,” Smith said. “This session, they have said we’re not allowed to do that because they’re trying to maintain social distancing.”

Smith said he and other members of the Statehouse press corps, an informal group of journalists covering state government at the Indiana Statehouse, struggle with this change. It requires them to speak to representatives in the slim hallways instead, and some representatives also refuse to wear masks with others gathering closely within the chamber.

“You seem to be working against the very idea that you are trying to follow, so that I think has recently become a source of frustration to us,” Smith said.

Smith said Republican media officials brought their plan to the Statehouse press corps and the officials were willing to receive input and compromise.

“We at the Statehouse press corps talked about it and talked through the issues we identified that would be a problem, or that would be problematic at least,” Smith said. “And then we went back to them and they adjusted, and I think we’ve all come to a really good place on that.”

Smith said he is concerned that there’s no space for journalists in committee hearing rooms because the livestreams often don’t tell the whole story. Legislators often forget to turn on their microphones, and reporters can’t ask questions of those who testify.

Due to the recent announcement that it will not be made public information when a lawmaker tests positive, Smith said he’s concerned a legislator being absent from the Statehouse will cause wild speculation that they have COVID-19.

“We’re not necessarily asking for, ‘We need the name of every single person who has tested positive,’” Smith said. “But to not even tell people, ‘Hey, someone has tested positive,’ it does seem a little odd.”

Bill amendments, Smith said, are also an issue. While some legislators are diligent about posting amendments online, others would resort to passing out physical copies. These physical copies will only be available to legislators.

“That doesn’t just affect journalists,” Smith said. “It affects lobbyists and affects members of the public. Not being able to physically be in the room with no sort of guarantee or indication that the online posting of committee amendments will be better or more complete makes that a real challenge.”

FOOTNOTE: Taylor Wooten is a reporter at TheStatehouseFile.com, a news website powered by Franklin College journalism students.

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