INDIANAPOLIS – Was the 2021 legislative session a sheep in wolf’s clothing? It depends on who you ask. Lawmakers and advocacy organizations concerned about the environment, justice reforms, and voting rights ended up with a proverbial mixed bag, with a few cliffhangers still remaining on the desk of Gov. Holcomb.

From an array of voices, here are the poison-tipped arrows, the deservedly dead, the fallen righteous, and the universally beloved.

1.) In your eyes, what was the worst piece of legislation (most damaging to Hoosiers and our state’s future) that passed this session?

Jeff Stant, Indiana Forest Alliance: “SEA389 is the worst piece of legislation to pass this session. IDEM estimates that SB389’s passage will result in the loss of all legal protection for 550,000 to 600,000 acres of the 800,000 acres of wetlands remaining in Indiana, 69% to 75% of all the wetlands we have. A large amount of the wetlands that will be lost are forested wetlands, some of the most biologically important forests in the state. They can be degraded to the status of Class I wetlands (that lost all protection in SB389), simply by logging them. The fact that the House Majority Leader, Rep. Matthew Lehman (R-Berne), personally lobbied hard for the second reading (floor) amendment that stripped the compromise language from SB389, that Chairman Douglas Gutwein of House Environmental Affairs had negotiated with IDEM, and replaced it with far more destructive language that the builders wanted shows the hypocrisy that the House Republican leadership was willing to engage in to get what the builders wanted done. For any other bill, they strongly defend their committee system, deferring to what the committee chairs report out. But not for this one. The fact that Speaker Huston personally voted in support of the second reading floor amendment and third reading final passage (when speakers often don’t vote) also was intended to tell Republicans to ignore their own committee chair. There were Republicans in both chambers, like Sens. Glick and Crider and Reps. Gutwein, Slager, and Abbott, that fought this bill hard and at least a dozen in the House and nine in the Senate who voted with every single Democrat to oppose this legislation.” The League of Women Voters of Indiana (LWVIN), Rep. Earl Harris Jr. (D-East Chicago), vice chair of the Indiana Black Legislative Caucus, and Jesse Kharbanda of Hoosier Environmental Council concurred that SEA389 is the worst of the worst. “LWVIN and many of our local leagues signed with over 100 other organizations a letter to Gov. Holcomb asking him to veto the bill,” said Linda Hanson of LWVIN.

Sen. Taylor (D-Indianapolis), minority floor leader: “SR39 specifically says that Indiana will not follow any legislation passed by the federal government to establish necessary gun control measures in our nation. Our country and state are being ravaged by gun violence. Rejecting common-sense efforts to address that issue is a shameful position to take as a state and was one of the most disappointing moves the General Assembly made this session.”

Rep. Shackleford (D-Indianapolis), chair of the Indiana Black Legislative Caucus: “HB1198 will set a very harmful precedent of charging an adult for their juvenile crime.”

Kerwin Olson, CItizens Action Coalition: “HEA1191 directly interferes with communities’, consumers’, and developers’ plans for creating sustainable communities and implementing climate mitigation strategies. Furthermore, it significantly limits consumer choices and further embeds the control and influence of the monopoly utilities.”

2.) The most damaging bill or amendment that – thank goodness – died.

Julia Vaughn, Common Cause Indiana: “I’d say the bill whose death I most celebrated would be SB353. That bill was bad as introduced (would have required people registering to vote to show proof of citizenship – that was amended out in the Senate committee) and it morphed into several horrible policy provisions as it went through the process. All of these bad ideas were predicated on the big lie, that voting by mail is insecure and legislators need to make it harder to access. It died in conference committee.” Rep. Earl Harris concurred: “We should not pass legislation which will disenfranchise voters by adding unnecessary requirements to a process which has already been proven to work. It is good for voters that this bill died.”

Jesse Kharbanda, Hoosier Environmental Council: “SB411 would have effectively stripped victims of pollution from being able to obtain relief in court if the offending polluter was otherwise compliant with environmental laws.”

Jeff Stant, Indiana Forest Alliance: “The amendment by Rep. Ellington added to HB1337 in the House Local Government Committee to remove county authority to regulate logging outside of a municipality. This amendment was stripped by HB1337’s Senate sponsor, Sen. Jim Tomes, in the Senate Local Government Committee before the whole bill was killed in that committee. The idea that a county should not be able to regulate logging on steep slopes with highly erodable soils that drain directly into the county’s water supply is abhorrent public policy.” 

Kerwin Olson: “The amendment to HB1191 which would have provided any holder of a Class 6I permit from the EPA immunity from liability and the right to condemn private property with no notification or compensation to the property owner, which was pushed for aggressively by the developers of the Wabash Valley Resources project in West Terre Haute.” Adds Stant of IFA: “[We cannot] afford to foist this biomass boondoggle on Hoosiers or grant the same legal precedent of this amendment to all the other greenhouse gas generators that will demand equal treatment.”

Sen. Taylor: “SB168 [proposing a study committee on the administration of the Indianapolis Marion County police department], thankfully, died this session without a committee hearing or vote. This was yet another big government bill introduced this session to meddle into the affairs of Marion County and I’m grateful that more logical minds got involved to keep this bill from moving forward.”

3. ) Best bill that was not heard / did not pass: 

Rep. Shackleford: “HB1202, which would have given a second chance to offenders in prison, prisoners that should be released according to our updated 2014 criminal code. Also, HB1333, which would have ensured our health care providers were trained to effectively communicate and care for our diverse population.”

Jesse Kharbanda: “Indiana is dramatically trailing other conservative states like North and South Carolina in dealing with the risks to our drinking water resources from unlined coal ash waste pits. In those states, the utility companies are excavating their coal ash from these waste pits and moving the toxic ash to lined landfills. In Indiana, with our state environmental agency (IDEM)’s consent, the utilities are overwhelmingly keeping the coal ash in place, even though the coal ash is leaching toxins into groundwater resources and the waste pits are in floodplains. Senate Environmental Chair Mark Messmer would not even hear SB367, though it had four bipartisan sponsors and could have seriously helped address one of Indiana’s biggest environmental health threats.”

Julia Vaughn: “The bill that didn’t even get a hearing but is really needed is SB103, which would have put some standards in place that legislators would have to follow when they draw new districts later this year. Currently there are very few redistricting rules in place, which is one reason partisanship can easily take over and drive the process.” Hanson of LWVIN seconded that: “We could have used a law that would have at least spelled out a redistricting process and prescribed transparency.”

Jeff Stant: “HB1222, authored by Reps. May and Cook. This was the ‘Old Forest Bill’ to set aside 10% of each state forest from logging. It never received a hearing by the House Natural Resources Committee. Also, we are also pretty disappointed by the failure of SB373 [establishment of carbon markets] to pass.”

Kerwin Olson: SB420 introduced by Sen. Yoder which have not only extended the phase-out of net-metering, but would have significantly expanded net-metering to make it available to more consumers. Additionally, it would have directed the IURC to create a better successor tariff to net-metering rather than the arbitrary and prescriptive tariff passed as part of SEA309 in 2017 which only promises to thwart, if not end, the rooftop solar market in Indiana.”

4.) Best thing to come out of the session overall: 

Jesse Kharbanda: “For all of the challenges of this session (and there were many), HEC and our allies did secure victories for environmental health, endangered open spaces, mass transit, and pollinator-friendly solar. And I’ve never seen the full spectrum of the Indiana environmental/conservation community – which can be quite diverse in goals and approaches – come together with such unity as the community has regarding SB389. If we can sustain and deepen this broad-based collaboration, we will, together, be a bigger influence over state public policy, and Indiana could open up a new era of improved environmental health and much more protected land and water, and be at the forefront of clean, safe zero-carbon technologies.”

Rep. Earl Harris Jr.: “The easy answer is HB1001, the budget bill which received bipartisan support, something not often seen for the state budget bill. Bolstered by funds from the Biden Administration’s American Rescue Plan and a better fiscal forecast than expected, its positive impact will be seen in areas such as education, food banks, law enforcement training, and health care. In terms of historic impact, though, the answer has to be HB1006. Authored by Rep. Gregory Steuerwald and IBLC Chair Robin Shackleford, this piece of legislation, in my opinion, will be a role model for other states to follow. The legislation will make de-escalation training for law enforcement officers mandatory, limits the use of chokeholds, penalizes officers who turn off body cameras and works to stop problematic officers from easily moving to another law enforcement department.”

Rep. Shackleford: “Bipartisan support of HB1001 State Budget, which greatly benefited the minority community. HB1199, which extended the traffic amnesty and will financially assist suspended drivers get back on the road. And SB368, which will give our youth an automatic second chance and keep them protected as they navigate the judicial system.”

Jeff Stant: “The $25 million in funding for conservation land acquisition and $60 million for trails (in the Next Level Trails program) in HB1001, the budget bill. While there is some concern that the conservation land acquisition monies didn’t go straight to the Benjamin Harrison Trust – perhaps they will revert back to the General Fund if IDNR doesn’t spend them within the biennium – the state sorely needs to buy more public park, forest and wildlife land.”

Kerwin Olson: “No question, it was the budget. It was refreshing to end a mostly dismal session with bi-partisanship and some hope for better things to come in the future.”