State lawmakers have significantly amended a bill that would give the Legislature the authority to weigh in on policies made during a public emergency.
House Bill 1123 initially would have allowed the governor to continue extending a state-of-disaster emergency order every 30 days, but only if lawmakers were already in session or were called into a special session by the governor. Only the governor can convene a special session under current law.
But the House Rules and Legislative Procedures Committee on Thursday amended the bill to create what would be called an “emergency session,” which would allow lawmakers to convene at any time during a statewide emergency.
The committee passed the bill 7-2. It heads to the full House for consideration.
Gov. Eric Holcomb, a Republican, first issued the public health emergency order for the COVID-19 pandemic in March and has continued it every 30 days since then.
Republican legislative leaders have praised Holcomb’s handling of the pandemic, but they also say lawmakers should be able to provide input in the decisions when an emergency continues for an extended period of time.
In order to convene an emergency session, the Legislative Council would have to pass a resolution declaring why an emergency session is necessary, setting the agenda for the session and determining the time, date and place for the session. Only bills related to that agenda would be allowed to be considered during the session.
The Legislative Council is made up of eight leaders from each chamber and both political parties.
Emergency sessions would be limited to 40 days and would be required to end within 10 days of the end of the state of emergency.
The amended bill would also prohibit state and local orders from restricting anyone’s ability to worship. At the beginning of the pandemic, Holcomb’s social gathering limits applied to churches, and local leaders around the state issued similar or even tighter restrictions. That would not be allowed in the future if the bill became law.
The new version of the bill would allow local health department orders to be less stringent than the governor’s, if the governor’s executive order allowed it.
But if a local health department imposed more stringent restrictions than the governor, the restrictions would have to be approved by the city council or county commissioners, whichever is appropriate. That is not currently required, and Holcomb’s orders during the pandemic have always allowed local officials to impose more stringent restrictions.
For example, if the Hamilton County Health Department issued more stringent requirements than the state, they would have to be approved by the Hamilton County Board of Commissioners. But if the Fishers Health Department imposed more stringent restrictions, the Fishers City Council would have to approve the measures.
The bill’s author, Rep. Matt Lehman, R-Berne, said he wanted to give local communities more flexibility, because during the pandemic some of the more rural counties had far fewer cases than some larger counties but had to operate under the same restrictions.