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.

That reality stands in darkly humorous contrast to a recent campaign called “Hoosiers by Choice” put forth by the new Indiana Destination Development Corporation (IDDC). “A lot of [the campaign] is focused on attracting talent,” IDDC CEO Elaine Bedel told Inside INdiana Business. “It’s really to tell that quality of life story that sometimes it’s hard to get out.”

Is it a story we want to get out? Ask an Evansville widow whose husband died of a heart attack. In areas with poorer air quality, pollution appears to accelerate deposits in the arteries.

For some in the General Assembly, the lack of regard for human health is hard to stomach. A self-described Twitter rant by Rep. Ryan Dvorak (D-South Bend) last week roiled with frustration. Rep. Dvorak shared a graphic showing Indiana’s #1 status among all states and territories on the U.S. Toxic Release Inventory. Then he added: “The House Environmental Affairs Committee has met ZERO times to hear ZERO bills and take ZERO testimony from anyone about anything at all,” he wrote. “In a normal world – a world where people prefer not to die of cancer – those rankings would usually elicit concern. Perhaps even a passing interest from the government of the state elected by those people.”

Do Hoosiers simply take pollution for granted? A debate is raging now among Posey County residents about a 3,000-acre solar farm. Those opposed say it will destroy farmland and have no local benefit. Those in favor wonder why their fellow residents are protesting a solar farm, while the petroleum refinery, ethanol plant and aforementioned coal-fired power plants have limitless pollution potential.

Then there’s the irony of HB1381, authored by Rep. Ed Soliday (R-Valparaiso). The utility industry’s best friend is now gunning for wind and solar projects. His bill bars local government entities from adopting “stricter-than” rules for the siting of these projects. Meanwhile, the Hoosier Environmental Council is fighting for an amendment to the bill that would guarantee sustainable ground cover on the land beneath the solar panels for better stormwater control and the attraction of pollinators.

Though market forces will phase coal out, Indiana will be cleaning up our coal mess for a long time. Sad then, that the House Environmental Affairs Committee (the target of Rep. Dvorak’s Tweeted ire), chaired by Rep. Douglas Gutwein (R-Francesville), has refused to hear HB1469. Authored by Rep. Pat Boy (D-Michigan City), this bill will set standards for the disposal of coal ash, including provisions for local public input. Our legislature will tell counties what’s good for them, except when it’s really bad. 

Other bills in play handicap government itself. HB1436, from the desk of Rep. Jeffrey Thompson (R-Lizton), would require IDEM and DNR to pay legal fees incurred by a party that successfully challenges an agency enforcement or permitting decision. The agencies would also have to take on the burden of proof when denying permits, letting applicants off the hook. Like the hotly contested wetlands bill, HB1436 sells out our natural resources for the convenience of a few.

Republicans have the power. They have the power to do right by Indiana citizens and protect us from contamination, toxins and industries that poison air, water, land, hearts and lungs. They might even find that cleaning up Indiana’s environment is popular among voters! Until then, “quality of life in Indiana” feels like an unintentional punch line. 

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