Indiana House Republicans defeated an attempt to remove language that weakened the few remaining state protections for wetlands in the state from a bill originally addressing on-site sewage systems.
Senate Bill 414 was originally a widely supported bill establishing state-wide rules for the use of onsite residential sewage discharge disposal systems, but a last-minute amendment by Indiana Builders Association member and real estate broker Rep. Doug Miller tightened restrictions on which wetlands could receive state protections.
During the second reading of the bill in a full House session March 27, Rep. Sue Errington introduced an amendment to remove those wetland restrictions from the bill.
“If this language stays in the bill, it not only further degrades Indiana's wetlands, it adds to a growing public perception that the General Assembly is not seriously committed to transparency or to safeguarding against impropriety,” Errington said when introducing the amendment. “In the minds of many, this wetlands language caters to the financial gains of special interests within the General Assembly, and rushing it through committee process before the public is aware of it creates a loss of public trust in our institution.”
Speaker of the House Todd Huston stopped Errington’s introduction, asking her not to “impugn the motives” of the lawmakers involved in the legislation.
Several Republicans, Reps. David Abbott, Bruce Borders and Becky Cash, joined House Democrats in supporting Errington’s amendment, but it was defeated by a vote of 64 to 32.
For about two decades, wetlands in Indiana have been given a classification dependent on whether they support wildlife or an aquatic habitat or possess a hydrologic function, and to what extent they do any of the three.
Wetlands with minimal wildlife, aquatic habitat or hydrologic functions are classified Class I. Wetlands with moderate levels of any of the three functions are classified Class II. Wetlands with “more than minimal” functions or those that are one of 20 rare wetland types are designated Class III.
The classification system and its language were approved again by the Indiana General Assembly in 2021, when it passed the controversial Senate Enrolled Act 389. SEA389 also removed the requirement for land developers to require a permit for developing Class I wetlands, which make up 425,000 acres of the state’s remaining 800,000 acres of wetlands.
Miller’s amendment alters language in SEA 389 to make it tougher for any wetland to be considered anything but Class I and would eliminate the possibility of any Class I or Class II wetlands being elevated to the most-protected Class III wetlands, no matter the level of their functions.
The 13-member Indiana Wetlands Taskforce assembled as part of SEA 389 found that the loss of wetlands due to the legislation provided farmers and developers with short-term financial benefits at the cost of long-term flooding issues.
“What the task force came to understand is that no matter what your background was, or what your special interests might be, we've reached a tipping point with the loss of these wetlands,” said Indiana Wetlands Taskforce member and White River Alliance executive director Jill Hoffman. “Our landscape needs every wetland that we have left, and we need to be restoring ones we've taken away. So this amendment and any other attacks on wetlands just feels like a step in the absolute wrong direction.”
The amendment was introduced hours before the House Committee on Environmental Affairs hearing at which the septic system bill was to be discussed, essentially eliminating the chance for the public to speak on the amendment.
SEA 389 and Miller’s SB 414 amendment were introduced by members of the Indiana Builders Association, a powerful trade group and lobbying organization for the state’s homebuilding industry.
For years, the Indiana Builders Association has raised funds through its Indiana Builders Political Action Committee in order to elect “pro-housing” candidates to the Indiana General Assembly.
The IBA assures homebuilders that choose not to donate, “You may choose not to contribute without reprisal.”
State campaign finance records show that in the 2022 election cycle alone, the PAC received $256,149.58 in total contributions from individual Hoosiers associated with homebuilding and associated businesses, homebuilding companies and regional building associations and their own PACs.
The top recipients of IBPAC contributions for the 2022 cycle were candidates for an open House seat and Republican leadership.
IBPAC’s highest contributions were $24,500 to the campaign of Shane Weist, a sales manager at Tempest Homes who unsuccessfully ran for open District 41 State Representative, and $22,500 to the campaign of Lt. Gov. Suzanne Crouch.
IBPAC contributed to nearly every elected representative serving in the Indiana General Assembly, regardless of party. The highest contribution amounts go to Republicans.
IBPAC contributions include $7,000 each to the campaigns of Sens. Chris Garten and Linda Rogers, two IBA members who are the main authors of SEA 389. Rep. Doug Miller’s campaign received $6,000 from IBPAC.
The full Indiana House of Representatives could vote on SB 414 later this week. If it passes, a conference committee will be assembled to reconcile the version of the bill that passed the House with the version that passed the Senate.
If the conference committee reaches an agreement, the bill will return to both chambers for approval. There, Senate and House members must approve the bill before it is sent to the governor for consideration.
Gov. Eric Holcomb could veto the bill, but that veto could easily be overridden by a simple majority vote in both chambers.