The Hoosier Environmental Council outlined its priorities for the upcoming legislative session. The group will talk about some of those at their annual Greening the Statehouse event that takes place virtually on Friday, Nov. 20 and Saturday, Nov. 21.
We talked with HEC executive director Jesse Kharbanda about some of these priorities. He said many of them reflect the challenging time we’re in due to the COVID-19 pandemic.
1. Defend the budget of state environmental agencies from cuts.
People who live in polluted areas — like near coal plants and big cities — are more likely to have the underlying heart and lung conditions that put them at a greater risk from COVID-19. Denise Abdul-Rahman with the Indiana NAACP has said those are disproportionately people of color and lower-income communities. Kharbanda said budget cuts to Indiana’s environmental agencies could endanger the health of kids, the elderly, and others who are especially vulnerable to pollution.
A report by the Environmental Integrity Project said cutting the budget of environmental agencies often threatens public health. In the past decade, Indiana’s overall state spending grew by 17 percent while the Indiana Department of Environmental Management’s budget was cut by 20 percent.
2. Reduce regulatory barriers to clean energy.
Kharbanda said, because of a bill passed three years ago, Indiana is one of the few states in the U.S. that will not offer higher net metering rates after 2022. Net metering gives people with solar panels credits for any excess energy that they deliver to the grid.
“So one of our priorities really is to kind of put a halt to the implementation of this very controversial solar bill, Senate Bill 309,” Kharbanda said. “And in fact, see net metering get extended for five years so that Indiana is in a position to really thoughtfully and methodically evaluate its policies with respect to rooftop solar and more generally distributed generation.”
Kharbanda said these kinds of industries bring jobs to the state too. Just like last session, he said the HEC will also advocate for other things that could help make solar more accessible — like third-party financing, PACE financing, and third-party community solar.
“These are kind of three proactive public policies that a lot of states have adopted. In fact, almost as many as 40 states have adopted PACE financing, including all the states that surround Indiana,” Kharbanda said.
3. Improving Hoosiers’ quality of life.
Kharbanda said the pandemic has accelerated remote working technology and some employers are likely going to allow more employees to have the option of working from home.
“So that means that cities and towns have to be increasingly smarter about making their communities the most attractive places to live so that they can draw in these increasingly remote and agile workers,” he said.
Kharbanda said sustaining funding for programs like Clean Water Indiana and the President Benjamin Harrison Conservation Trust Fund not only protect the environment, but also open up recreational opportunities — which he said could be an important factor in attracting and retaining young workers.
Kharbanda said the HEC is also keeping a close eye on what comes out of the 21st Century Energy Policy Development Task Force, which has its final meeting on Thursday, Nov. 19.
He said the legislature has put forth bills in the recent past that would slow the transition to renewable energy sources. One of those bills, House Bill 1414, became law last session. The original version aimed to keep coal plants open until Indiana could come up with a statewide energy plan. The current law only requires utilities to note planned coal plant closures in their long-term energy plans.
“We're concerned that something else may come along that essentially provides a financial incentive to keep coal plants running really longer than the utilities themselves believe ought to be the natural life of these coal plants,” Kharbanda said.
Kharbanda said the HEC is also concerned about the effects of gerrymandering and — if Indiana redraws its maps — whether that process would be transparent. He said according to a study by Stanford University, gerrymandering often leads to the more partisan candidate getting elected.
“In primary campaigns, the turnout for the ideological-minded voter is a lot higher than the more pragmatic voter. And so the ideological voter wins the primary. And because the seats are drawn and situated, they're very partisan in nature, it tends to be that that ideological winner in the primary ends up easily winning in the general in the fall elections,” he said.
Kharbanda said gerrymandering can have an effect on environmental issues. He said it leads to lower voter turnout and can discourage people from engaging with Indiana’s General Assembly.
Indiana Environmental reporting is supported by the Environmental Resilience Institute, an Indiana University Grand Challenge project developing Indiana-specific projections and informed responses to problems of environmental change.