ANDERSON — Environmental groups hoping to see meaningful legislative action on issues ranging from coal ash regulation to wetland management may be disappointed when the General Assembly closes its abbreviated session in mid-March.
Lawmakers from both parties as well as representatives from several conservation groups expressed moderate expectations for most of the environment-related laws expected to pass in the coming weeks.
“I think most of our committees will only have two meetings and then they will probably have two meetings to look at what comes from the other house. It’s less time than we had last year,” said Rep. Sue Errington, the most Democratic on the Environmental Affairs Committee. “I think mid-term (elections in 2022) and the fact that we all have new districts – people are worried about going out to campaign. But we also have the omicron variant (COVID-19) which affects a lot of people. »
Notable for some groups, this session is a bill co-authored by Errington, D-34th District. House Bill 1334 would allow property tax deductions for property owners who maintain qualified wetlands. The legislation was tabled this week after the passage last year of a bill that allows the development of wetlands that occupied cropland, provided that the land had been used for agriculture during the last decade.
Supporters say this year’s bill, drafted 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 say, will reduce state oversight over wetland protection.
“We’ve been losing wetlands for many years,” said Tim Maloney, senior policy director for the Hoosier Environmental Council. “Indiana is well behind many states in its investment in protecting outdoor spaces, and we have seen during the pandemic that people flock to trails, 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 that have been magnified by the pandemic. These are good places to live. »
Opportunities for wind and solar power to take a bigger place in the state’s energy portfolio are the focus of legislation drafted by Sen. Tim Lanane, D-25th District. Senate Bill 127 authorizes what Lanane calls “a study of the potential for environmental jobs in the state.” It asks Indiana University’s Paul H. O’Neill School of Public and Environmental Affairs to provide a forecast of the job creation, economic growth, and incomes of Indiana communities that could result from the growth of environment-related industries. A report would be due to the Legislative Assembly by December 1.
Lanane also said he would push for an extension of a state tax credit for installing solar panels in residential housing. Bills to encourage solar panels in homes and farms are pending in both houses of the General Assembly.
“I think we should give local units of government more autonomy in adopting environmental measures,” Lanane said.
Coal ash protection is also a point of attention for several environmental groups. After legislation passed last year that created a licensing program allowing the state to oversee the closure of many coal ash ponds, Maloney said he hopes lawmakers will consider ways improve management and disposal methods.
“This is a direct and ongoing environmental threat for which we have undisputed evidence that poor disposal practices are causing groundwater contamination across the state,” Maloney said. “It’s just not disputed. It is happening and it needs to be dealt with. »
Lanane said he also plans to introduce legislation to address climate change, citing a US News and World Report study that ranked Indiana 48th in the nation for air and water quality. and number one for industrial toxin emissions. But he admitted that the prospects for advancing to anything substantial are likely limited.
“While there is a lot of work we need to do on environmental issues in Indiana, I doubt there will be any significant legislation passed,” he said.
As the Legislative Assembly grapples with a host of issues, including the ongoing pandemic, allocating some of the state’s $3.9 billion budget surplus and stabilizing school funding, some see less support. urgency to advance environmental initiatives, at least during the current session. There is also the matter of the upcoming midterm elections, in which many members of the General Assembly are expected to face major challenges in reconfigured constituencies.
Still, Maloney said he hopes lawmakers will see that tackling environmental issues is part of their collective responsibility to ensure Indiana attracts and retains high-quality workers across a broad spectrum. of industries.
“If you sacrifice the quality of the environment or if you do not provide all the elements of quality of life, including clean water, clean air and outdoor spaces, you are hurting your economy and you are hurting one of the priority efforts of economic interests in Indiana,” he said. “It’s no longer acceptable to just say you have low taxes and few regulations and that will give you a productive and thriving economy. It’s not like that anymore.”