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Thursday, September 23, 2021
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  • 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."
  • INDIANAPOLIS – The General Assembly needs a shrink. Or at least some new tools. How about some conflict resolution techniques? Could we vow that name calling is out and mutual accountability is in? Can we return to a time when the people’s business was conducted with the expectation of political compromise? Barack Obama said: “A good compromise, a good piece of legislation, is like...a good piece of music. Everybody can recognize it. They say, ‘Huh. It works. It makes sense.’”  The opposite has been true over and over this session. As Sen. Ron Alting (R-Lafayette) famously said last week: “There just seems to be no balance anymore in this building.”  At the end of a bloody session, the concept of restoring political trust offers a glimpse into an alternative style and substance of politics. Everyone, including the media, is focused on the products of the legislative process. But what about the process itself? What if it turns out tyranny is baked into the current approach? Then we need a new one. Indulge me with a few “what if’s.”
  • INDIANAPOLIS – Who better to ask what it’s like working on environmental issues under super minority conditions in the Indiana General Assembly than two Democrat lawmakers from Northwest Indiana Region, home to the most delicate natural ecosystem in the state. Sen. Karen Tallian (D-Ogden Dunes), an attorney, has served at the Statehouse since 2005. This year, she authored a coal ash clean-up bill, and worked to negotiate amendments to the controversial wetlands bill.  Rep. Patricia Boy (D-Michigan City) is a former small business owner elected in 2018. Bills she authored this year included spilled substances reporting rules, support for towns wanting to complete greenhouse gas inventories, and others. None received hearings. She also worked to lessen the damage of the wetlands bill. In separate but similar interviews, both were remarkably candid about the frustrations of a devilish imbalance of power in today’s Statehouse.
  • INDIANAPOLIS  – I kid you not. On April Fool’s Day, a pair of Janus-faced bills are set to be heard in Sen. Eric Koch’s Senate Utilities Committee, HB1381 and HB1191. HB1381 creates uniform rules for the siting of solar and wind projects. HB1191 prevents municipalities from mandating green building materials or electric vehicles, and from banning any certain sort of energy a utility might provide. While HB1381 forces a path for renewables, and HB1191 defends the turf of traditional utilities and building materials, both bills break Indiana’s formerly biblical devotion to home rule. The bills also represent a bipolar take on Indiana’s energy future. Are we going green or clinging to dirty? Can lawmakers contort themselves to cater to competing industries, from the wind energy lobby to the natural gas lobby? Do counties and towns ever know what’s good for them? Fact is, one-third of Indiana counties currently have some form of legislation on the books against renewable energy projects. And two-thirds of them have passed indignant resolutions against HB1381. Some claim the fact that the bill’s subject is renewable energy is incidental; it’s all about the principle of local control. 
  • INDIANAPOLIS  – Carbon. Indiana excels at emitting it, even though the world needs no more of it – and by 2050, way, way, way less of it. Fifty Indiana economists agreed, in a recent letter sent to Indiana’s congressional delegation. Fact is, Indiana is one of 10 states that produce half of all U.S. emissions. So we have a lot of carbon to suck up. There are many ways to do so. Plant more trees. Preserve more forests. Farm low- or no-till; plant cover crops. SB373, which was scheduled to be heard this week in Rep. Sean Eberhart’s (R-Columbus) House Natural Resources Committee, would create financial incentives for carbon-absorbing projects. In a past column, I called SB373 the most meaningful environmental bill in years. If it becomes law, willing landowners, farmers and forest owners will get paid to keep carbon in the ground. The DNR and the Dept. of Agriculture will set up a verification process. The well-loved but heretofore underfunded Benjamin Harrison Conservation Trust and Clean Water Indiana program will be expanded to include carbon credit banks so the state profits, too. This bill is remarkable because of how little serious opposition it’s faced. The agriculture sector is a little jittery, but not too much. The timber industry lobby doesn’t oppose it. The environmental community is bullish on it. 
  • CARMEL — This Friday, Hoosier youth will gather on the Statehouse lawn to demand “immediate, concrete, and ambitious action from global leaders to address the climate crisis.” One person likely to be there is 11-year-old Leo Berry of Carmel. Leo is the founder of Helping Ninjas, an association of kids ready to “stand up for the planet” with chapters in 16 states. The group’s logo is the earth, with friendly eyes and a martial arts headband. If this sounds cute, don’t think that Leo doesn’t mean business. In fact, he and his group are paying close attention to the General Assembly and the anti-wetlands bill. “SB389 is to overwrite the bill that is currently defending wetlands,” blogged Leo. “When I read this, I felt mad and worried. I sit here and think: Why is it that this world we live in is so driven by outcomes that do not always work in favor of nature?” Leo started a petition against SB389 on Change.org. It calmly lays out the science of wetlands and the services they provide. By the time you read this, it will have over 25,000 signatures. Former state senator Beverly Gard, author of the 2003 bill that is currently defending wetlands, shares Leo’s concern.
  • INDIANAPOLIS — “Everywhere I look, people from both parties are working hard to create a livable future for their kids and grandkids,” mused a friend, who directs a local environmental non-profit. “It would be one thing if the Statehouse just stayed out of the way as municipalities, counties, businesses, churches, neighborhoods did this work.” Indeed, many citizens are doing the heavy lifting of democracy, in contrast to the contemptuous themes of marquee bills in the 2021 Indiana General Assembly. Point #1: In 2016, 59% of Marion County voters agreed to a tax to improve the city’s transit system with a new 15-mile line from Lawrence to downtown, and a 24-mile line from Cumberland to the airport, each bringing with it improvements to sidewalks and drainage – and links to jobs. Although he sang the praises of infrastructure in a 2017 interview in TheStatehouseFile.com, Sen. Aaron Freeman (R-Indianapolis) authored SB141, the much-discussed vengeful bill that retracts funding for Indy’s public transit. 
  • EVANSVILLE — Indiana Republicans are grinning like Cheshire cats and running like retrievers. To be a Republican lawmaker right now is to be exhilarated by free rein. Is even the governor a mere speedbump? Tenants have no defense against landlords, teacher pay is in the cellar, and green building materials are being outlawed at state universities. Here’s a question that can’t be dodged: What exactly makes a citizen want to live in Indiana? Case in point: Most states have one super polluter (an industry that emits toxic air pollution). Southwestern Indiana still has four, Duke Energy’s Gibson power plant, AES’ Petersburg power plant, NIPSCO’s Schahfer power plant, and Alcoa’s Warrick metals plant. As a direct result, Hoosiers die in higher numbers from cancer, as well as heart and respiratory diseases, made worse by the high poverty in these rural counties. While market forces are moving away from coal, state lawmakers have never taken special action to clean up Indiana’s air.
  • INDIANAPOLIS – The spirit behind the legislation pumping out of the General Assembly this session – bills that advance carbon markets and lead testing in schools, and others that kneecap public schools, wetlands, and Indianapolis – begs the question: What does it mean to be a legislator? What is the promise that legislators make to themselves as they shape the way life is lived in Indiana? I hoped the oath of office might suggest an answer. It took two phone calls to the Statehouse to find the text of it. A kindly intern in House Speaker Todd Huston’s office finally obliged: “I,<insert name> do solemnly swear that I will support the Constitution of the United States of America and the Constitution of the State of Indiana, and that I will faithfully and impartially discharge my duties as a member of the House of Representatives of the General Assembly of the State of Indiana to the best of my skill and ability, so help me God.” A quick word search of the Indiana Constitution doesn’t yield a definition of “the duties.” But there is this sweeping statement, right off the bat, in Article 1, Section 1: “We declare ... that all power is inherent in the people; and that all free governments are, and of right ought to be, founded on their authority, and instituted for their peace, safety, and well-being. For the advancement of these ends, the people have, at all times, an indefeasible right to alter and reform their government.”
  • INDIANAPOLIS – Once upon a time, individual property rights were the bedrock of the American fairy tale, the manifest destiny dream that shaped our DNA. Like the right to bear arms, controlling your own property was sacred and inalienable, especially in the GOP pantheon. What’s changed? A lot. It’s strange that Republicans have managed to attract voters of any kind with their new sacred principle, industrial rights above all. If you’ve ever taken the back roads of, say, Dubois or Newton counties, you’ve probably smelled, if not seen, a confined animal feeding operation (CAFO). These are the sprawling complexes that churn out Indiana’s 20.5 million turkeys, 4.2 million hogs and 187,000 dairy cows. These are the mechanized factories that make Indiana first in the nation in commercial duck production, second in total eggs produced, fourth in turkeys raised, and fifth in hog production – as the Indiana Department of Agriculture claims with pride. But living near a CAFO kills any romance of rural life. 
  • INDIANAPOLIS – Remember the 2016 law that bans a ban on plastic bags in Indiana? Here we go again. This time it’s “you can’t ban natural gas, Fort Wayne” (or any other city). “And, you can’t have an all-electric vehicle fleet, Indiana University.” Or build a new building made from an energy-saving material if it doesn’t save you money. This is HB1191, which passed out of the House this week and is now headed to the Senate. It’s another example of a desperate fossil fuel industry panicking about the inevitable transition to cheaper renewable energy and the waning of its own ... utility (pun intended).  HB1191 snatches sovereignty out of local hands and leaves it in the lap of the industry. It’s another egregious example of the industry’s stranglehold on the lawmakers who receive its generous campaign contributions. And it’s another one of those bills that solves a non-existent problem, a preemption bill, in the parlance of the American Legislative Exchange Council (ALEC).
  • INDIANAPOLIS – On Feb. 1, the Senate Natural Resources Committee will hear SB 373, arguably the most meaningful, proactive environmental policy to emerge from the Indiana General Assembly in years. Yes, you read that right. Tim Maloney of the Hoosier Environmental Council described the magic bill this way: “It’s based on the idea that Indiana businesses – who are interested in reducing their carbon footprint and in the market to buy carbon offsets – should be able to buy these offsets in Indiana, offsets that are generated by Indiana farmers and woodland owners, and by state-run forest conservation projects. If enacted, the bill will leverage new private investment for land, water and wildlife conservation in Indiana and reward farmers and woodland owners for stewardship practices that sequester carbon.” That’s right, folks. Indiana’s ready to jumpstart a carbon market, incentivize sustainable agriculture and forestry, and implicitly acknowledge the climate crisis! Predictably, and in true Hoosier fashion, the bill contains no mandates, only a set of dangling financial carrots. Also in true Hoosier fashion, it’s low-risk, and not a new idea. No matter. SB 373 is an elegant triple win: For state government coffers, for the pocketbooks of forest and farm owners, and for Indiana’s corner of Planet Earth.

  • CHARLESTOWN, Ind. — For thousands of years, a teeming wetlands ecosystem called the Grand Kankakee Marsh saturated nearly a million acres of what is now northern Indiana. Known as the “Everglades of the North,” the marsh made big bucks for the fur industry in the 1890s. Once fur went out of fashion, Hoosier leaders decided the area would be more profitable for farming and logging. They used every engineering feat to obliterate the marsh, river, and wildlife that thrived in it. Those politicians considered God-given nature an intolerable inconvenience to progress. Fast forward to 2007. The family of former state senator Victoria Spartz planned a multimillion dollar project to develop a big box store on 60 acres in Noblesville. IDEM halted the project after the family bulldozed and filled in wetlands on the property without permits. In 2019, Spartz authored SB 229, and Gov. Holcomb signed it last spring. Not coincidentally, SB 229 removes state oversight of certain wetlands near regulated drains. Again, nature is so very inconvenient. Now three state senators have authored a bill that continues the Indiana tradition of wetland wreckage.
  • INDIANAPOLIS – Energy independence. It’s a phrase that might conjure images of a Madison County school corporation with a sparkling new solar array, or a field of bobbing oil derricks down in Posey County. However you envision it, energy independence is a notion that ought to appeal to Hoosiers in general and Republicans in particular. Energy dependence, on the other hand, is the effect of SEA 309, the 2017 state law that phases out net metering of consumer-generated solar energy. This cynical law hampers one industry while passive aggressively buttressing another.  Essentially ghostwritten by utility lobbyists, the law was shepherded by Sen. Brandt Hershman, who, soon after the law was passed, his industry credentials burnished, flew the coop to Washington to be a lobbyist himself. The upshot: Install solar at your home or business after July 2022, and the utilities pay you less than half retail market rate for the energy you generate. You may even have to pay them. Southern Indiana utility giant Vectren has filed a request with the IURC to halt net metering even earlier, as soon as March 2021. These threatening deadlines (and a federal tax credit that was set to expire until the latest COVID relief package extended it) have ironically stimulated Indiana’s solar economy in the short term. 
  • JASPER – First, we zoom in on Jasper, Indiana, Sen. Mike Braun’s hometown. According to the county-level map on the Yale Program on Climate Change Communication website, 60% of Dubois County residents surveyed believe that global warming is happening and will harm future generations. And 83% think we should fund research into renewable energy. Zoom out to the U.S, as a whole, where 67% believe warming is happening and poses a threat. And that’s not a partisan belief; according to polling group Luntz Global, 75% of Republicans under 40 believe that climate change must be addressed by the government and can be done in conservative ways. Americans do get it, even if Washington hasn’t. Until now. Last week, our own Sen. Braun stepped into a national leadership position on the climate crisis. As announced in an Oct. 23 op-ed in “The Hill,” Braun has paired with Sen. Chris Coons (D-Delaware) to found the Senate Climate Solutions Caucus.
  • INDIANAPOLIS  — In Indiana, having one’s head in the clouds is deadly; our state is the second most toxic in all the nation when it comes to pollution, according to a new U.S. News & World Report poll. But thanks to the Citizens Climate Lobby (CCL), fewer politicians will have their heads in the clouds when it comes to an embraceable climate change policy. One week ago, 1,500 members of CCL swept into Washington, D.C. to hold meetings with 90% of House and Senate members. Their agenda? To explain and lobby for the Energy Innovation and Carbon Dividend Act (EICDA), a.k.a. H.R. 763. This act creates the most painless path possible to shift to renewables -- which experts have said we have 12 years to do before we reach a planetary point of no return. Let’s be honest: Any policy that isn’t bipartisan, market-driven, scientifically legit, and revenue-neutral is not going to get passed, nor make a dent in the enormity of the climate menace. The EICDA does all of these things in one elegant package.
  • AUSTIN, Tex. — While half the field of Democratic presidential candidates are busy arousing socialist passions, the other half seems ready to take an ideological chill pill in favor of practicalities. Pete Buttigieg is mostly in the latter camp. Notwithstanding his “porn star presidency” sound bite — a Molotov cocktail of a meme that sent our Twitter feeds spinning — Buttigieg most often comes off as the affable, studious problem-solver we’re starving for, as he did at last month’s CNN Town Hall at South by Southwest. Columnist David Brooks, writing about Mayor Pete in this week’s New York Times, notes that we like Buttigieg because he “deftly detaches progressive policy positions from the culture war” and “eschews grand ideological conflict.” Case in point: Mayor Pete’s statement at the CNN Town Hall about one particular policy will, I predict, emerge as a credible tool for bipartisan movement on the 800-pound gorilla called climate change.
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  • Sen. Young won't vote to raise debt limit
    “Defaulting on our debts will start a spiral of economic turmoil. If Democrats had treated Republicans as a governing partner I might feel differently. Instead, they’ve treated us as an obstacle." U.S. Sen. Todd Young, announcing Wednesday he will vote against raising the limit.
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