Another viewpoint editorial: Why isn’t there a legislative interim environmental study committee?

Fort Wayne Journal Gazette

It’s been a little more than a month since state Sen. Shelli Yoder, D-Bloomington, expressed deep frustration that the Indiana Legislative Council excluded environmental topics from the 2024 interim study committee assignments.

“I am extremely disappointed that, yet again, there will be no environmental study committee this year. Indiana faces some of the country’s worst air and water quality,” she wrote in a May 14 news release.

Yoder highlighted Indiana’s severe air and water quality issues and criticized the recent House Enrolled Act 1383 for potentially worsening water quality. Yoder emphasized the necessity of a statewide water resource management plan to address droughts and water issues.

Yoder argued that environmental health underpins critical areas such as health care, jobs, housing and infrastructure, and stressed that sustainable economic growth requires protecting natural resources.

The supermajority’s response: Cue the cricket noise. We did ask the Senate majority leader, Sen. Rodric Bray, for comment, but we did not receive a response.

Over the following weeks and months, Indiana lawmakers will delve into various topics — such as crime trends, Medicaid reimbursement rates and potential tax reforms — as they gear up for a robust 2025 budget session.

Throughout the summer and fall, representatives and senators will tackle issues assigned by the General Assembly’s Legislative Council, a body comprising the House speaker, Senate president, seven representatives and seven senators.

However, if history is a guide, many reports submitted to the council may solely outline the tasks assigned, the number of meetings conducted and the individuals involved without including specific legislative recommendations.

In a 2022 column highlighting the interim study group process, former Journal Gazette Indianapolis bureau chief Niki Kelly, now editor of Indiana Capital Chronicle, proffered two reasons for having a study committee.

“The first is when a topic truly is complicated and could use additional time and expertise to delve into solutions that the expedited session process doesn’t allow,” she wrote.

“The second,” she added, “is when a controversial proposal is dividing legislators, leadership assigns the topic to a study committee to get it off the table and out of view — to kill it.”

So, what does it mean when the legislature doesn’t even assign a topic to a committee?

It would be illogical to view the supermajority’s stance on environmental regulation as tepid due to the drastic cuts to rules and regulations in the past few sessions and an abandoned attempt to cull the list of per- and polyfluoroalkyl substances, also known as “forever chemicals,” that have been found in Indiana drinking water.

The lack of an environmental study committee cannot be because Hoosiers don’t care about the environment. A 2020 study by Arizona State University’s Morrison Institute, funded by the Nina Mason Pulliam Charitable Trust, surveyed 800 Hoosiers to assess their environmental concerns. (The stated confidence level was 95%.) The results showed 80% of respondents prioritize environmental protection, even if it slows economic growth.

Our hypothesis as to why there’s no study committee is that asking questions of experts — and integrating industry shills — would highlight continued environmental degradation that would be hard to ignore.

The supermajority’s refusal to invest in the environment is going to have harsh consequences for our state, Muncie Rep. Sue Errington, the ranking Democrat on the House Environmental Affairs Committee, told The Journal Gazette.

“Currently, Indiana is at the bottom of the barrel regarding environmental affairs,” she said. “A 2024 WalletHub survey ranked Indiana as the 33rd least green state in the nation, and another report from Forbes placed us at 49th in air pollution. With these dismal numbers, Indiana is in no condition to be so casually dismissive of the environment.”

At the very least, a study committee would allow these discussions to be brought to the table. It could be that the reason an environmental study committee has not been assembled is not due to the topic’s triviality but rather because the magnitude of the decisions that have been made and are to be made by the supermajority is more easily resolved with as little debate as possible.