ANDERSON — Environmental groups hoping to see meaningful legislative action on issues ranging from coal ash regulation to management of wetlands may be disappointed when the General Assembly wraps up its abbreviated session in mid-March.
Lawmakers from both parties as well as representatives from several conservation groups expressed muted expectations for most of the legislation related to the environment that’s expected to be taken up over the next several weeks.
“I think most of our committees are only going to have two meetings, then they’ll probably have two meetings to consider what comes over from the other house. That’s less time than what we had last year,” said Rep. Sue Errington, the ranking Democrat on the Environmental Affairs Committee. “I think the midterm (elections in 2022) and the fact that we all have new districts — people are concerned about getting out there to campaign. But we also have the (COVID-19) omicron variant out there that’s affecting a lot of people.”
Notable to some groups this session is a bill co-authored by Errington, D-34th District. House Bill 1334 would authorize property tax deductions for landowners who maintain qualified wetlands areas. The legislation was filed this week following the passage last year of a bill that allows development of wetlands that occupied cropland, as long as that land was used for agriculture within the last decade.
Advocates say this year’s bill, authored by Rep. Pat Boy, D-9th District, would help mitigate the impact of what they see as a negative outcome with last year’s legislation, which some believe will reduce state oversight of wetlands protection.
“We’ve been losing wetlands for many, many years,” said Tim Maloney, senior policy director for the Hoosier Environmental Council. “Indiana lags well behind many states in its investment in protecting outdoor spaces, and we’ve seen during the pandemic that people have been flocking to trails and parks and other outdoor places as a safe way to recreate and meet family and friends — just for the physical benefits and emotional well-being of dealing with the daily stresses of life which have been magnified by the pandemic. These are healthy places to be.”
Opportunities for wind and solar power to assume a more prominent place in the state’s energy portfolio are the focus of legislation authored by Sen. Tim Lanane, D-25th District. Senate Bill 127 authorizes what Lanane calls “a study of the potential for environment-related jobs in the state.” It calls for Indiana University’s Paul H. O'Neill School of Public and Environmental Affairs to provide a forecast of job creation, economic growth and revenue for Indiana communities that could result from the growth of green-related industries. A report would be due to the Legislature by Dec. 1.
Lanane also said he will lobby for an extension of a state tax credit for the installation of solar panels in residential housing. Bills to incentivize solar panels in homes and on farms are pending in both General Assembly houses.
“I think we ought to give local units of government more autonomy in passing environmental measures,” Lanane said.
Coal ash protection is also a point of emphasis for several environmental groups. After the passage of legislation last year that created a permitting program for the state to oversee the closure of many coal ash ponds, Maloney said he’s hoping lawmakers will consider ways of improving management and disposal methods.
“It’s an ongoing direct environmental threat where we have undisputed evidence that poor disposal practices are causing ground water contamination throughout the state,” Maloney said. “That’s just not in dispute. It’s happening, and it needs to be dealt with.”
Lanane said he also plans to file legislation aimed at addressing climate change, citing a U.S. News and World Report study that ranked Indiana 48th in the country in air and water quality and first in industrial toxin emissions. But he admitted that prospects for advancing anything substantive are likely limited.
“While there’s lots of work that we need to do on environmental matters in Indiana, I doubt that there’s going to be significant legislation passed,” he said.
With the Legislature confronting a host of issues, including the ongoing pandemic, allotting a portion of the state’s $3.9 billion budget surplus and stabilizing school funding, some see less urgency to moving environmental initiatives forward, at least in the current session. There’s also the matter of the upcoming midterm elections, in which many General Assembly members figure to face primary challenges in reconfigured districts.
Still, Maloney said he hopes lawmakers see that taking on issues pertaining to the environment is part of their collective responsibility to ensure Indiana attracts and retains high-quality workers across a broad spectrum of industries.
“If you sacrifice environmental quality or you don’t provide all of the elements of quality of life, including clean water and clean air and outdoor places, then you’re harming your economy and you’re harming one of the priority efforts of economic interests in Indiana,” he said. “No longer is it acceptable just to say you have low taxes and few regulations and that’s going to give you a productive, thriving economy. It’s just not like that anymore.”