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Indiana Democrats Call For Special Session On COVID Funding, Vote-By-Mail, Police Reform

Indiana House and Senate Democrats want the governor to call a special session of the General Assembly to meet in August.

Dems say there are critical issues that must be addressed before the legislature’s scheduled return in January.

Senate Democratic leader Sen. Tim Lanane (D-Anderson) said there’s nothing more important in the short term than ensuring Hoosiers don’t have to choose between their health and their right to vote. That’s why he wants expanded vote-by-mail to be one of the issues the legislature takes up in a special session.

“We, for the life of us, cannot understand why our Republican colleagues are afraid to give all Hoosiers the choice to exercise their right to vote,” Lanane said.

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Democrats also want the legislature to have input on how federal COVID-19 relief money is spent. Sen. Karen Tallian (D-Ogden Dunes) said it’s currently overseen by a small group of unelected business and government leaders, appointed by the governor.

“To have, you know, six, seven, eight guys in a room talking about it without any input from people who represent the entire state of Indiana is just wrong,” Tallian said.

COVID-19 relief funding priorities for the Democratic caucuses include helping people who've lost their jobs afford health insurance, expanding COVID testing and contact tracing, adding more money to a small business support fund and providing paid family and medical leave for employees not covered by federal law.

And some police reform is on the Democrats’ agenda for a special session. Sen. Eddie Melton (D-Gary) said in the wake of widespread protests over racial injustice and police brutality, Indiana leaders have done nothing concrete to show they believe Black Lives Matter.

READ MORE: What’s Driving This Moment In Indiana: Protest Organizers Discuss Demands For Change

“Because it is not an exaggeration when we say that lives are on the line," Melton said. "Allowing the deep and structural problems in our criminal justice system to continue to prevail is not an option.”

Melton acknowledges that all the problems won’t be solved in a single session. And the Indiana Black Legislative Caucus has a broader police reform agenda. But Caucus President Rep. Robin Shackleford (D-Indianapolis) said there are a few policies that can’t wait.

“To implement a ban on chokeholds, racial profiling and no-knock warrants,” Shackleford said.

Gov. Eric Holcomb said he’ll consider the proposal and will seek input from Republican legislative leaders. In a statement, House Speaker Todd Huston (R-Fishers) said he doesn't believe a special session is needed – but notes conversations on all the issues Democrats raised are ongoing. 

"I've met with leaders from the Indiana Black Legislative Caucus and pledged that our team will continue working with them to improve our criminal justice system and policing," Huston said. "I remain in regular contact with the governor's office and have every confidence they are working responsibly to utilize CARES Act funding to get Indiana back on track as quickly as possible."

Huston also said the Indiana Election Commission has all the tools it needs to expand vote-by-mail, if necessary.

Senate President Pro Tem Rodric Bray (R-Martinsville) echoed his House counterpart, saying there's no need for a special session now.

"Though I certainly acknowledge the importance of policing issues and believe we should continue to look to build consensus as we prepare for session in January," he said. 

Bray said there is already work being done in interim study committees and what he calls "informal working groups."

This story has been updated.

Contact reporter Brandon at bsmith@ipbs.org or follow him on Twitter at @brandonjsmith5.