Indiana environmental activists to push bipartisan agenda

November 15, 2010

Environmentalists say the new era of Republican control of both chambers of the Legislature won't change their efforts to seek broad bipartisan support for initiatives they contend can also boost the state's economy.

The GOP reclaimed the Indiana House on Nov. 2 after four years of Democratic control, giving Republicans control of the House, Senate and governor's office. Lawmakers meet Tuesday for their annual organization day to begin planning their agendas.

Jesse Kharbanda, executive director of the Hoosier Environmental Council, said the new Legislature will make it more challenging to sell environmental initiatives mainly because there are more than two dozen freshmen lawmakers he and others will have to court.

He said environmental advocacy groups will be spending the next few weeks meeting with those new lawmakers and filling them in on environmental issues they support.

Kharbanda said that because Republicans have long controlled the state Senate, the Indianapolis-based not-for-profit council has always tried to champion issues likely to garner wide bipartisan support.

"We've always been sensitive to the ideological dominance in the Senate. We've never wanted to propose legislation we didn't think would eventually gain currency with the Senate Republicans," Kharbanda said.

Rep. Jeff Espich, the House Republican budget expert who sits on the State Budget Committee, said lawmakers' primary concerns in the coming session will be writing a new two-year state budget, working to stimulate job growth and funding education within the state's financial constraints.

Environmental legislation will simply take a back seat to those more pressing matters, said Espich, R-Uniondale. "Those issues are not likely to be on the same level," he said.

Kharbanda said he and other activists will closely follow expected state budget cuts they fear could weaken enforcement of the state's environmental programs even as they push favored initiatives such as a state renewable energy standard.

Such a standard would commit the state to drawing a set percentage of its electricity from renewable sources such as wind or solar by a specific timeframe — and supporters say it would also spur jobs in Indiana's renewable energy industry.

Another priority will be funding mechanisms for mass transit systems such as buses and commuter trains, Kharbanda said.

Rep. Ryan Dvorak, a South Bend Democrat who had chaired the House Environmental Committee, said he is worried that most of the issues important to environmental activists "are going to be dead" under Republican control of the Indiana House.

Dvorak expects the Legislature's environmental agenda to be dominated by initiatives that attract the most support among Republicans. But he said other measures such as efforts to reduce algae problems in the state's waterways may attract wider support.

"I've got a good relationship with people on both sides of the aisle and I think we're going to continue to work together — I just think it's going to be more difficult," he said.

Rep. Dick Dodge, a Pleasant Lake Republican who represents northeastern Indiana's lake-filled Steuben County, plans to sponsor a bill restricting the use of lawn fertilizers containing phosphorous that can fuel algae blooms in the state's lakes, rivers and streams.

Dodge said his legislation would allow those fertilizers to be used on new lawns where homeowners are trying establish their greens but ban their use on established lawns.

"My district contains a lot of lakes and the lake folks are pushing to have this done. They think it's bad for the water quality," he said.

Indiana is currently moving ahead on one issue long sought by activists, expanding rules allowing the owners of wind turbines and other renewable power systems to get credit for excess power they generate.

A rule proposed by the Indiana Utility Regulatory Commission would allow all classes of utility customers to get such credit and raising the power capacity 100-fold to 1 megawatt. Currently only homeowners and K-12 schools benefit and there's a 10-kilowatt limit.

Steve Francis of the Hoosier Chapter of the Sierra Club said he and others hope to convince lawmakers to follow up on that regulatory change by adding Indiana to the list of about 20 states with bond financing or loan programs that help offset the formidable cost of installing renewable power systems.

"That's sort of the next step, helping people get over the hump of the very high cost of renewable technologies," he said. "That upfront cost is a big hurdle."

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