In Session: HB 1351 Could Be Good for Biz, Bad for Environment

It’s not the sexiest legistlation in the General Assembly, but supporters and opponents seem to agree it could have far-reaching impact.

It might not generate the same crowds and headlines of some other policy issues, but one of the more understated items on the 2015 legislative agenda is hardly the least important: how Indiana’s energy use and environmental quality are to be regulated.

And where House Bill 1351 in particular is concerned, the debate among lawmakers and lobbyists is, in fact, starting to heat up.

The backbone of the bill addresses how rules that come out of state offices, such as the Indiana Department of Environmental Management, could be restricted. Typically, departments set their own regulations, occasionally giving them a hearing with experts and the public. As long as the rules don’t conflict with the law, they can go into effect without input from legislators.

But HB 1351 would bring another set of eyes to the process. And it would impact every state agency.

In short, the bill would set up an official in the Legislative Services Agency as a legal watchdog over government agencies, reviewing any rules proposed by state offices. If the LSA official saw a red flag, the rule would go to the General Assembly for review.

Rep. David Wolkins

According the bill’s author, Rep. David Wolkins (R-Warsaw), it would add an additional step in the regulatory process. “But,” he says, “I think it will result in less regulation.”

“We don’t want them to go beyond what we as a legislature intend,” says Wolkins, “or what the federal government intends when they send out regulations.”

Opponents of HB 1351 fear the bill would discourage agencies from making positive change for fear of upsetting legislators. Ultimately, argues Jesse Kharbanda, executive director of the Hoosier Environmental Council, it would make quality-of-life and health risks like pollution from farm chemicals more difficult to curb.

In short, says Kharbanda, “It would make it harder for state regulators to do their job.”

The HEC is also concerned about murky language in the bill that would prevent state regulations from exceeding federal standards. So if Indiana someday wanted to enact, for example, tougher clean-water protections than required by the feds, state law might prevent Hoosiers from doing so.

Jesse Kharbanda

“To be honest, we don’t know what the practical basis of this bill is,” said Kharbanda.

It’s not clear what, if any, state regulatory actions might have signaled a need for HB 1351, and even Wolkins says it is largely preemptive in intent. Nine existing checks and balances are already in place to put the brakes on any potentially overreaching state regulation, including the governor’s authority to overturn it.

With a 7–4 vote on Tuesday, the House Committee on Government and Regulatory Reform pushed the bill past an important hurdle, on what could be a contentious path. The price tag for implementing the bill, which would impact every state agency, is estimated at $475,000. The bill now moves to a committee report and then to the House floor.