Efforts to send a message that Indiana is open for business to renewables came to an abrupt stop on Tuesday night. A bill that would have established some statewide standards for wind and solar projects – but was amended to grandfather in counties’ more restrictive ordinances – died on the Senate floor.
Despite significant amendments that had House Bill 1381 doing a ‘180 degree turn’ and handing more authority back to local governments, local control concerns still lingered, according to the bill’s senate sponsor Sen. Mark Messmer, R-Jasper.
On the Senate floor Tuesday night, after withdrawing the bill, Messmer said that handling the bill was akin to being in a “hostage negotiation with a schizophrenic.” He said he gave local officials everything they wanted and asked for, but the captor “still shot the person at the end of the ordeal anyway.”
Energy groups, consumer advocates, environmentalists and the business community all supported the legislation, saying it would bring significant investment to the state and help with Indiana’s energy transition. But local officials and groups opposed the bill raising concerns over home rule.
“It was worked to a completely different direction from when we brought it over from the House to being as local control as it could possibly be,” Messmer said to his colleagues.
Messmer declined IndyStar’s interview request “because it’s a dead bill.” The bill’s author, Rep. Ed Soliday, R-Valparaiso, did not respond to IndyStar’s requests for comment.
Rep. Matt Pierce, D-Bloomington, who serves on the House Utilities committee and supported this bill, said that “usually when a bill stops moving like that, it means the majority caucus decided they just didn’t want to vote on it, likely feeling it was too controversial.”
The Association of Indiana Counties said during the Senate Utilities committee that it felt the amended bill addressed “most if not all” concerns about local control. The changes including grandfathering in county ordinances passed before July 1 of this year, even if they restricted or banned renewable projects. The appeals process for project decisions was also moved into local courts, and established a one-time installation fee to be paid by the renewable company to the local government.
But upon further review, the Counties Association said that while it acknowledged the amendments improved the bill, it was not enough. There are 34 counties, including Hamilton and Hancock, with ordinances that restrict wind and solar projects, or prohibit their construction altogether.
“County officials feel strongly that local planning and zoning authority should remain in the hands of local officials,” said Ryan Hoff, director of government relations with the group. “The loss of local control after July 1 would have prevented counties from being able to respond to changing circumstances in the future.”
Some of those who supported the bill said that’s not the case. While the original bill would have overruled county ordinances, the version that died would have allowed counties to make updates and changes to their local laws as long as they weren’t becoming even more restrictive.
With the death of this bill, which had passed out of the house by a vote of 58 to 38, proponents say Indiana’s transition to cleaner energy sources and the state’s economic growth will be hindered.
“Advanced energy means jobs and new revenue for our Hoosier communities,” said Caryl Auslander with Advanced Energy Economy. “It was our hope that common sense would prevail, but by counties rejecting a statewide siting plan for wind and solar projects, Indiana has passed on both.”
Without that, Indiana, its counties and individual landowners are losing out on serious investments that renewable companies are taking to other states. Several companies have said the state’s patchwork of ordinances and past experiences in which they’ve invested substantial funds in a project just to be blocked at the county level at the 11th hour leaves them reluctant to come to Indiana.
Millions of dollars are at play, proponents said.
A recent report indicates meeting renewable energy demand in Indiana would see an added 25,000 jobs and $5 billion in new investment in the next 10 years. That can include millions at the county level in property taxes and significant dollars to individual landowners in lease payments.
Advocates also posit that replacing retiring coal plants with renewable energy projects will help to keep electricity prices low, as wind and solar are among the most cost effective energy sources.
Renewable energy companies had said that this legislation, even with its amendments, would have given them more regulatory certainty and confidence to come to Indiana.
John Cardwell is one such Tipton County landowner and farmer who worked to bring a wind project to his community about 10 years ago. They worked for several years, only to be blocked at the last minute. As someone who is retired, he said the land lease payments could have increased he and his wife’s income by as much as 50%.
He was excited to see HB 1381 moving through Indiana’s legislature, saying that if it had gone into law in 2012 when he was working with the wind farm, the project probably would have been approved.
“It’s a very important bill. It truly adds to your income for rural communities, not just for farmers who may be struggling, but rural communities that are struggling to pay for their schools,” Cardwell said. “It’s just a real, viable opportunity to do the right thing for the environment while really supporting local economies and Indiana.”
Wind turbines in Benton County
Many local counties said they aren’t opposed to renewables as a whole, but they just don’t want them in their backyards – and they want to be able to control that.
“Local citizens should be able to influence zoning decisions through the elected officials and appointed boards that live in the community,” Hoff with the Association for Indiana Counties said. He added that “Indiana is open to renewables.”
Kerwin Olson, executive director of the Citizens Action Coalition, agrees that folks across the board are supportive of renewables and the transition to clean energy. That includes utilities, consumer advocates, environmental advocates, conservative groups, the business community, faith groups and others, he said.
“But we just can’t seem to make it happen at the policy level, so where is the disconnect?” Olson said. “The optics are awful.”
The picture that will be painted is that Indiana objects to renewable energy. He said he doesn’t know how to change that narrative in the wake of what happened with HB 1381 and other bills this session.
“Bills dealing with what utilities want and what fossil fuel interests want pass with little resistance,” Olson said, “but we have to scrap and claw for anything about renewables.”
Pierce, who serves on the House Utilities committee agrees, pointing to another local control energy-related bill that is still advancing.
House bill 1191 would also limit a local government’s local control by prohibiting it from passing any ordinances or policies that banned or had the effect of banning a particular fuel source. While the bill’s language is neutral, the discussion solely focused on wanting to prevent a move away from natural gas.
Those opposed to HB 1191 said it should be a local governments choice if they want, with the support of their community, to take steps that make them more resilient against and less of a contributor to climate change. That could include a push toward electrification in new builds.
But those in support of the bill argue it’s needed to maintain choice for customers on whether they want natural gas or electrify. It’s also important to keep energy costs low, they say. Many of the same lawmakers who voted in favor of this bill and preempting local governments were opposed to HB 1381 over local control concerns.
“The difference in this case is that the people in these counties that have essentially banned renewables have shown they have power,” Pierce said. “They have defeated local officials that supported siting of wind in their counties. So legislators in those areas think of this as the third-rail of politics for them,” meaning an issue so controversial that anyone who touches it will suffer politically.
Hoff said the Indiana Counties group shared similar concerns on the natural gas preemption bill, adding that local officials are elected by citizens to provide an appropriate level of regulatory authority to protect citizens.
“Not every community will share a similar outlook on what constitutes ‘proper’ regulation,” Hoff said. “But preemption of local authority to regulate property or behavior assumes a single approach is proper for all areas of the state.”
HB 1191 was passed out of the Senate by a vote of 33 to 16. It now heads back to the House, where lawmakers will decide whether to accept the amendments made in the Senate or to send the bill to conference committee in attempts to reach a compromise.
Though HB 1381 has died, those in support said they plan to keep pushing and will renew their efforts again next year.
IndyStar reporter London Gibson contributed to this report.
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