Gov. Eric Holcomb has signed bills into law that will make it harder for Indiana utilities to shut down coal-fired power plants before May 2021 and all but prohibit panhandling in downtown Indianapolis, a provision expected to be challenged in court.
Holcomb signed 33 bills on Saturday, a list that also includes legislation that eliminates a requirement that teacher pay be based in part on student performance and cancels a planned reduction in the tax businesses pay into the unemployment insurance fund.
The Legislature approved the unemployment bill because federal officials told the state last year the fund needs to have more money on hand to prepare for a future recession.
That was before the coronavirus outbreak led Holcomb to order the closure of restaurants and bars and thousands of other businesses shut down, leading to a surge in unemployment claims that could eventually test the fund’s balance, even with the changes.
Holcomb signed House Bill 1022, which makes panhandling illegal within 50 feet of any ATM; entrance or exit of a bank, business or restaurant; public monument; or place where any “financial transaction” occurs. The definition of “financial transaction” includes any exchange of money received by a business, parking meter, parking garage, public transportation authority facility or pay station, or restaurant.
That’s substantially different from current state law, which makes it a criminal offense to panhandle within 20 feet of an ATM or entrance to a bank or when the individual being solicited is at a bus stop, in a vehicle or in the sidewalk dining area of a restaurant.
Advocates of the legislation say panhandling in downtown Indianapolis is out of control and hurts the state’s tourism industry.
“Since 2012, between existing customers expressing panhandling-related concerns and lost bids for the same reason, Visit Indy has tracked more than 50 conventions and events tallying hundreds of millions in economic impact that have either been lost or are at risk for future re-bookings,” Chris Gahl, senior vice president of Visit Indy told IBJ.
But the American Civil Liberties Union of Indiana says the new bill goes too far. The group’s legal director, Ken Falk, told IBJ the language violates the First Amendment.
“It’s way too broad,” Falk said last week. “It is a cynical attempt to drive the homeless population from downtown. We’re going to bring a lawsuit to challenge it if it’s signed by the governor.”
The law is based on an ordinance in San Antonio, Texas, which advocates say make it likely it will pass legal scrutiny. But Falk said court decisions in other places make it likely the law will be overturned.
Maintaining coal-fired plants
Holcomb signed House Bill 1414, a controversial bill that is meant to ensure electric companies don’t shut down any coal-fired power plants in the next year or so.
The bill comes as large utilities across Indiana have announced plans to shut down thousands of megawatts of coal-fired generating capacity in favor of cheaper fuel sources, such as natural gas, solar and wind.
However, no Indiana utility has announced plans to shut a coal-fired plant by May 2021. If they would suddenly decide to do so, the utility would be required to hold a public hearing before state regulators and explain its rationale. That process could take six months.
Normally, however, utilities plan years ahead before building or shutting down generating plants through a lengthy process called the Integrated Resource Plan, which they are required to update every three years, with several public hearings.
The initial legislation would have gone much farther, essentially preventing power companies from shutting down any coal-fired generators without explicit permission from state regulators.
Many environmental groups, consumer advocates and business groups opposed that proposal, some calling it a bailout of the coal industry. Coal still accounts for more than 70% of the electricity generated in Indiana, but U.S. coal consumption is now at its lowest point in 40 years, and at least six major coal companies have gone bankrupt since 2015.
But advocates of the bill said the state needs to pause during the industry transformation to cheaper energy and figure out whether the energy grid would be threatened by a continued move away from coal. Closings also affect communities, said Rep. Edward Soliday, R-Valparaiso.
“When you close a [coal-fired] plant, it has a huge impact,” Soliday said. “People need time to plan.”
Changing teacher evaluations
Holcomb signed House Bill 1002, which will end the mandatory use of student standardized test results in teacher evaluations, dropping a requirement long opposed by teachers.
The bill represents an about-face on the mandate dating from a 2011 Republican-driven education overhaul that school districts incorporate those student exam results in their teacher evaluations, which are used in determining merit pay raises. Schools districts would still have the option of incorporating the scores in evaluations.
Bill sponsor Rep. Tony Cook, a Republican from Cicero, has said removing the requirement acknowledges the trouble with measuring teacher effectiveness based on a single student exam.
The test mandate was often decried during a November rally by thousands of teachers at the Statehouse, but some business and education reform groups opposed dropping it.
The Associated Press contributed to this report.