State lawmaker drainage task force fumbles on final report

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Over three-plus hours Wednesday, members painstakingly debated and approved 20 of the 30 recommendations submitted to an interim committee on drainage along with three preliminary drafts of legislation. Then the committee defeated the final report.

Instead, the committee will only provide an informational document to fellow legislators rather than proposals.

“I was extremely frustrated,” Sen. Jean Leising told the Indiana Capital Chronicle. “I want to apologize to farmers and property owners—we tried, but we didn’t accomplish anything even though we had five meetings.”

She co-chaired the meeting and called concluding without a committee recommendation report “embarrassing” considering the amount of hours spent listening to expert testimony and constituent problems.

The committee’s attorney Craig Mortell, part of the Legislative Services Agency, ended the meeting by saying that the committee would be finalized as an informational report with no recommendations or findings included.

The confusion of PDs

Leising, with decades of experience under her belt, said that preliminary bill drafts have been around in legislative committees for years but many others have simply reduced their findings to a summary report. Others, still, don’t produce anything.

“Very few actual proposals come out of interim committees and task forces. Many of them do a … summary or report that’s put on the internet and nobody reads it,” Leising said. “We didn’t want this to be like that.”

It was not immediately clear how these three documents would, or would not, appear in the informational committee report.

The three preliminary drafts of legislation approved by the committee:

3256: Requiring the Department of Agriculture to oversee and prepare an updated version of the Indiana Drainage Handbook, which was published in 1996 with a revised 1999 edition.

3257: Logs removed from a river or stream don’t need to be cut if the individual doing so thinks it would create an unreasonable risk of bodily harm or if they are dried and burned so completely it eliminates the risk of reentry.

3274: Creates a general license from the Department of Natural Resources for working in floodways without first obtaining an individual permit.

Following the receipt of the proposed recommendations, Leising said she and a handful of other legislators drew up the preliminary drafts of legislation to ensure the task force’s efforts didn’t get swamped and die in the legislative session.

But throughout Wednesday’s meeting, members took issue with the drafts, with some questioning whether non-elected officials appointed by the governor — but still part of the task force—should be eligible to vote on the documents.

Others had concerns that they would be seen as sponsoring the final product, which may differ significantly from the committee-passed version.

“We’re voting on PDs with the promise that it’s going to be changed…,” said Sen. Shelli Yoder, D-Bloomington. “(But) there is no promise that this is how it’s going to be.”

The opposition of the committee’s Democratic members and governor-appointed members sank five such drafts by one vote because the Republican majority was down a member, meaning it needed one ‘yes’ from the two other groups to get to the ten-vote majority.

One draft getting significant attention was the requirement for the Department of Natural Resources to notify property owners that they lived on a state floodplain—a more extensive mapping that goes beyond federal floodplain maps. Lawmakers initially tried to weaken this map, which impacts mortgage lending, flood insurance and building permits.

Since these maps had inspired the drainage task force, Leising said she was disappointed to see nothing done to give these property owners notice.

“The bigger thing, after going through all of this craziness, is who is really the loser. And the loser is the property owner who is currently listed as being on a state floodplain and they are not aware of it,” Leising said. “They won’t know it, as it stands, until they seek a building permit or they get ready to sell their property.”

Committee chaos derails further action

Several of the recommendations overlapped with the approved drafts, including ones addressing updating the drainage handbook, logjam removal and general licensing for working in floodways. Committee members declined to approve any recommendations related to wetlands — which has its own task force.

But the final report, because it wasn’t approved, won’t detail committee approval of these recommendations the same way.

Leising said she was frustrated that the committee needed 10 votes due to the presence of two members abstaining from voting—representatives of DNR and the Indiana Department of Environmental Management. Had those two representatives not been there, Republicans would have only needed nine votes and could have passed more substantial drafts and recommendations—something that wasn’t apparent until voting was already underway.

“It was the most miserable task force or interim committee meeting I have ever been a part of—and, unfortunately, I was co-chair of it,” Leising said.

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