A bill that would have eased some regulations for startups failed this session. But should lawmakers still act to make it easier for new companies to launch?
State agencies like the Indiana Department of Environmental Management, Department of Natural Resources and Department of Health exist to provide vital environmental, safety, and public-health protections for all Hoosiers. But these agencies are perennially understaffed and underfunded by a General Assembly and successive governors who do not recognize and respect agency expertise. This is evident in several bills that received legislative committee hearings in this session.
There is no good public-policy reason for legislators to favor business interests over the technical work of scientists at IDEM, DNR or INDOH. House Bill 1165 would have allowed businesses to get waivers or exemptions from state law and regulations, which were carefully implemented to benefit and protect the environmental, safety and public health of all Hoosiers. This is too high a price for promoting a handful of untested business “innovators.”
Two other bills that gained traction in the General Assembly this year disfavor agency expertise and are framed in terms of a business-oriented cost-benefit analysis. Senate Bill 297 proposes that the Office of Management and Budget give special review of administrative rules that could cause over $1 million in implementation or compliance costs. The bill would also require the Legislature to approve all such rules. This bill would substitute business monetary interests and inexpert legislators for established and expert agency rulemaking. House Bill 1108 is a proposal that would similarly allow the substitution of legislative fiat for local-agency control of residential development on steep, erodible slopes in the state. Serious consequences can follow if weakened public safety and environmental protections pave the way for businesses to intentionally violate or negligently ignore established laws and regulations. Last April, a fire at a plastics facility in Richmond caused explosions, forced the shutdown of area schools and required everyone who lived within a half mile of the scene to evacuate their homes for five days. Numerous local, state and federal laws and regulations were violated by the facility operators at a huge cost to the community.
Thankfully, the wisdom of young Hoosiers was evident on Jan. 31, when a high school senior testified before the Senate Environmental Affairs Committee. The topic was House Bill 1383, which would further erode protections for Indiana’s depleted stock of wetlands, which provide valuable water storage, aquifer-recharge and water-cleansing services to all Hoosiers for free. The student reminded the senators he had learned from state legislators the lesson of fiscal responsibility. He asked: Why would the Senate approve legislation that discards the availability of long-term, no-cost ecosystem services that wetlands provide in favor of short-term economic benefit for a handful of builders? The teenager respectfully admonished elected officials to stick with their philosophy of wise stewardship of resources and not change hats for the (business) fashion of the day. The legislators should stick up for the state agency, in this case IDEM, against extortive pressure from private interests.
The lesson of this legislative session is that too many of our elected officials profess to love state regulatory agencies, except when the agencies’ expert scientists and subject-matter specialists get in the way of powerful business interests.
We at the Hoosier Environmental Council believe in vigorous and honest debate on important environmental, safety and public-health measures. We also believe that public policy should be weighed in favor of protecting all Hoosiers, not just a few businesses that might have short-term interests contrary to the public good.•
Gilder is senior policy and legal director at the Hoosier Environmental Council. Send comments to email@example.com
Click here for more Forefront columns.