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.

Do you see any common ground between yourselves and Republican leaders when it comes to the environment?

Rep. Boy:
We’ve been working on amending SB389, the wetlands bill. Working with IDEM, we’re on our 24th amendment [as of Monday morning 4/12]. There’s now one-stop permitting. IDEM says they can work with it; it’s not a net loss of wetlands. [Note: the bill was further amended Tuesday to eliminate or reduce protections for two classes of wetlands]. The House Natural Resources Committee seems a little more concerned about nature than the Environment Committee is concerned about the environment. With SB373, we’re still looking at the carbon sequestration project but not getting protection for those who live around it. The only legal protection is for public water departments. In 1986, there was a lake in Africa with volcanic soil building up on the bottom. In the middle of night, a big explosion killed 1,746 people and 3,500 head of cattle. They died of asphyxiation in their sleep. There’s no protection for something like that. I’m working on an amendment for protection against death or injury to people or livestock and damage to wells caused by seismic activity. They’re drilling down 6,000 to 8,000 feet into a deep saline aquifer. That can sometimes eat away the rock. Not that I think that carbon sequestration is a bad thing. I voted to let this bill out of committee. I just want to make sure we do this the right way. In the Judiciary Committee, the project owners [Wabash Valley] came again and said there were no problems.

Sen. Tallian: We had an IDEM agency bill that we have every year. Even that was whittled down because it was clear, given the wetlands bill, that someone was having a battle with IDEM. When you’ve got the head of the Environmental Affairs Committee having a battle with the agency, that distorts things. The agency is supposed to and should rightfully have input. On the other hand, sometimes the agency needs help. For example, in the past few budgets, the IDEM budget has been curtailed; so has DNR’s, so they don’t have ability to do all the programs they are supposed to do, and the legislature needs to hear that. 

What do you know about voter interest in environmental issues?

Sen. Tallian:
I would characterize my district as comprising two main groups, organized labor and the environmental lobby. My district is along Lake Michigan and next to a state park and a federal park. Save the Dunes was started in my town. All the people are heavily committed to environmental issues.

Rep. Boy: I sent out a survey and the environment was one of the top three issues of concern in my district. I have a lot of farms, too. Farmers want to be able to repair field tiles in drainage. That problem was repaired in committee with the wetlands bill. A lot of people are working on coal ash issue as well and NIPSCO is retiring their coal plant and Bailly [Nuclear Power Plant] is closed. People are concerned about coal ash, warming of the lake, the wetlands (we have a lot of wetlands up here). But the House Environmental Affairs Committee has two farmers, three realtors, and three builders ... that’s crazy.

What do you observe regarding the power of industry lobbyists?

Rep. Tallian:
There seems to be this whole group of builders in both the Senate and House, but there is a so-called “builders caucus” in the House, I hear. That’s the result of gerrymandering.

What’s the #1 thing you wish your Republican colleagues would do or not do when it comes to environmental policy?

Rep. Boy: Take some science courses. In debating SB373 and sequestration, we were talking about how carbon dioxide can be toxic. “I took a chemistry course, it’s not toxic,” said one of my colleagues. I wish they would hear our bills at least. Just listen to them. They say there’s so little time to do everything ... and then they propose to end the session a week early.

Sen. Tallian, you serve on the Senate Environmental Affairs Committee. What’s that been like?

Sen. Tallian:
I’ve been in the Senate for 16 sessions and I’ve been on this committee for all but two of those years. Let me tell you, when I first came to the Statehouse, Bev Gard was chair. She was a scientist and was committed to environmental issues. Those first couple years, I was a rookie, but after a while, she and I started to work together a lot. We got to the point where she trusted me and she didn’t do crazy stuff. She’d say: “Tallian, help me with this legal stuff.” We would actually write a bill together. We did that a lot over the years. She left in 2012 and then Ed Charbonneau came in. There’s a lot to this job, a lot of technical and science stuff. He took a little time to learn the job and work on water issues. He and I worked together as well; we were buddies from adjoining districts. With Mark Messmer [current committee chair], this is his third session. I don’t feel like we have someone in there who’s really committed to the whole topic. I’ve offered bills this year. I don’t think I ever heard a Democrat’s bill being heard. Last year we had hardly any meetings of the committee. I think that’s a big part of what’s wrong; we don’t have a science-based committee chair who’s committed to the environment. 

What kinds of environmental policies Indiana is missing?

Rep. Boy:
Better notification of environmental spills. Protecting contiguous forests for habitat corridors. Our state forests are not old growth and most of the old growth is gone. The state is not allowing contiguous areas to become old growth forests. The DNR states on their website that old growth is important but they don’t have plans to create old growth. There are no cross-party alliances on any topic this year. We’re walking into a brick wall. 

Sen. Tallian, you authored a bill on coal ash disposal, SB367. What happened with that? 

Sen. Tallian: I couldn’t even get Mark [Sen. Messmer] to discuss it with me. He said, “Oh you know, IDEM is going to make rules about that.” I don’t think he knew that. It was clear that he wasn’t really interested. He did not even give feedback; he just ignored it. It’s hard to deal with what’s not being heard. If the chairman won’t hear a bill and you’re not a big money lobby group that goes to the leadership and governor, that’s it. With this atrocious wetlands bill [SB389], the governor sent the agency heads of DNR and IDEM to testify against the original bill. Think of the last time that these agency heads actively opposed a Republican bill? Bev Gard was brought out of her chair to write an op-ed against this bill.

What can regular Hoosiers do to impact Statehouse politics?

Rep. Boy:
Elect more Democrats. We’re 29 out of 100 in the House, a super minority. Anything that’s proposed can be passed without our help, or over our objections. We have to try to appeal to reason. Our party has proposed 43 amendments to the budget, most of which were not heard. We asked for $1.5 million for food pantries and we got $300,000, which is the same funding level for years. And they [Republicans] wouldn’t hold off on corporate tax cuts. We didn’t say “don’t raise them.” We just said, don’t cut them this year. And they did anyway. I requested that home health care workers get at least a $12-an-hour wage. No traction.

Sen. Tallian, talk about your cannabis bills this year.

Sen. Tallian: One was to legalize possession of marijuana and other was to create an agency to regulate anything related to cannabis. This year was the closest I got; my bill went to the Commerce Committee. Chip Perfect said he wouldn’t hear my bill, but he invited me to come and testify on the subject.

What do you think the new leadership of the state Democratic Party needs to work on?

Rep. Boy: I’m hoping they can get more grassroots people to join them. We need to get progressive Democrats to work with other Democrats. Our county party chair is in favor of that. It’s all about the big picture. In the meantime, we are doing as much as we can. Rep. Carolyn Jackson (D-Hammond) had a bill on protecting kids from lead contamination that actually passed in the 2020 session. 

What is the path forward?

Sen. Tallian: It’s getting harder every year. There are a lot of people who are just noisemakers. They have no plan or commitment; they just like to make noise. My strategy all along was to bond with your committee chairman, work with them, actively do it, and always when you speak on an issue or a bill, know what you’re talking about. When you do that and your ideas are not totally crazy, people listen to you. I’ve made a lot of changes to a lot of bills that will never have my name on them. If there is an issue, I can offer a solution. First time I ever did this, it was my first year here. Connie Lawson was in leadership in the Senate. She was having trouble with language and HIPPA; HIPAA was fairly new. As an attorney I was working the case. When I approached her and offered to help, she looked at me like, “Who the hell are you?” But I gave her the language. The next week she came back and said, “You know, I talked to my people and that was exactly what we needed.” That was the beginning of a working relationship. That’s also how I ended up having a relationship with Bev Gard, who is very Republican. Same thing with Phil Boots. We hadn’t always agreed, but we had a relationship.

Give us some parting perspective. 

Sen. Tallian: It took years...I remember being on the Environmental Affairs Committee, 10 years ago, when we were talking about renewable energy standards. It took a few years to even talk about it; it was a really hard conversation. And now we have a bill [HB1381] about siting wind and solar projects. [As of Monday 4/12] Not everyone’s happy with it, but I think it’s going to pass. We’ve gone from “We won’t even talk about this,” to “Let’s have a bill that all of the stakeholders have input on.” [Editor’s note: the bill died on Tuesday]. 

A consultant and grant writer, Laker is principal of Laker Verbal LLC.