Senate passes IEDC land notification bill as water regulation attempts die

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LEAP District concept map

Indiana’s Senate on Thursday approved a bill forcing the state’s economic development entity to disclose large land buys. It was a slap on the wrist for the Indiana Economic Development Corp., whose land, water and incentive plans have generated increasing skepticism and scrutiny.

Legislation on chaplains in schools, mobile integrated health programs, farmland ownership and school referenda also passed the chambers.

“This bill is an important first step in a conversation I hope we will continue to have regarding how we empower IEDC to compete for jobs from around the world in ways that will never lose the trust of Hoosiers back at home,” Sen. Spencer Deery said on the floor Thursday.

Senate Bill 295 would require the IEDC to tell counties or municipalities about acquisitions of more than 100 acres at least 30 days before those purchases close.

The bill, authored by Republican Sen. Brian Buchanan of Lebanon, would additionally add two lawmakers to the IEDC’s board as non-voting advisory members.

The IEDC, a quasi-public agency, has snapped up thousands of acres of land in Boone County for the Limitless Exploration/Advanced Pace (LEAP) Lebanon Innovation and Research District. But its secretive buying approach and high per-acre payments brought about backlash from some.

The entity’s plan to pipe 100 million gallons of water daily 35 miles from the Wabash Alluvial Aquifer in Tippecanoe County to the district sparked yet more uproar from those worried about that area’s water supply.

And recent State Affairs Indiana reporting revealed a significant proportion of capital investment projects involving tax credits didn’t meet investment targets – but some companies still received the full tax credit amount.

“With large funding and great powers come great responsibilities — and greater expectations for transparency and accountability,” Deery, R-Lafayette said. “Otherwise, trust erodes and support for economic development dwindles.”

Senate Minority Leader Greg Taylor, D-Indianapolis, spoke against the bill because it provides for just two board members from the General Assembly. They would be chosen by the House and Senate majority leaders, who are Republicans.

Senators passed the legislation in a 44-5 vote, with some Democrats voting against in protest. The bill now goes to the House, where it will restart the three-part chamber legislative process.

But Sen. Ron Alting, R-Lafayette, noted that bills providing stronger oversight of the IEDC have died. He commended Deery and Republican Rep. Sharon Negele of Attica for their work on bills regulating large water withdrawals. The state doesn’t have any such laws on the books.

“You never hear about the people that work behind the scenes because (if) the bills don’t get heard, you don’t go to the (microphone),” Alting said, appearing frustrated. Deadlines this week put some bills are out of commission.

The Senate also approved the following bills Thursday:

Senate Bill 50, in a 34-15 vote. The legislation would allow schools to hire chaplains to provide “secular support” to students and school employees, given they have a master’s degree in divinity, theology, religious studies, or a related field, as well as two years of “counseling experience.” A parent would have to provide permission for nonsecular advice or guidance. Amendments were added to ensure a chaplain has a duty to report child abuse. The bill, authored by Sen. Stacey Donato, R-Logansport, now moves to the House. But Sen. Sue Glick, R-LaGrange, said Thursday that — by authorizing public schools to pay religious entities with tax dollars — the legislation “is a direct violation of the (state) constitution.”

Senate Bill 142, in a unanimous, 49-0 vote. Authored by Sen. Brian Buchanan, R-Lebanon, the bill would require insurer reimbursement for services provided by a mobile integrated health program. The pilot effort would be limited to three counties that have already established mobile integrated health units — Delaware, White and Montgomery — and would run from July 1, 2024 until June 30, 2027.

And the House passed agricultural land and school levy legislation:

House Bill 1183, authored by Rep. Kendell Culp, R-Rensselaer, passed the House unanimously. It would prohibit purchasers from “adversarial countries” from owning or leasing Hoosier farmland. A list of those countries is kept by the U.S. Department of Commerce and currently includes six nations: Russia, China, North Korea, Iran, Cuba and Venezuela. Existing state law limits how much agricultural land can be acquired by foreign businesses, and specifically states that Russian citizens or business entities cannot hold or convey real property within Indiana. Culp’s bill expands on those conditions, permitting an adversarial beneficiary to have no more than 5% ownership in a parcel of Indiana farmland. Those from adversarial countries are also prohibited from purchasing or leasing water rights, mineral rights or riparian rights.

House Bill 1376, authored by Indianapolis Republican Rep. Bob Behning, narrowly passed on a 52-42 vote, splitting the Republican caucus. Under the measure, school referendum measures on capital projects may only appear on general election ballots, though operating and safety referenda are unaffected. Proponents argue more Hoosiers participate in the general election than the primary while opponents say the lack of flexibility will impact school budgeting.

The Indiana Capital Chronicle is an independent, not-for-profit news organization that covers state government, policy and elections.

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