(This piece was originally published on January 18, 2017 in NUVO.)
With a new administration, there are always new people in new positions with a new outlook on the future.
For the Hoosier Environmental Council (HEC), a new governor is a new opportunity to address old issues in the state. And this new governor, Eric Holcomb is already showing promise by being open, listening and putting good people in good places.
“Things are on a better footing than they have been by virtue of the fact that Governor Holcomb decided to select Bruno Piggott to be the new commissioner of IDEM (Indiana Department of Environmental Management),” says Jesse Kharbanda, executive director of HEC. “He had been a long-standing head of their water program and recently had been elevated to be their chief of staff. We respect his accessibility, his candor, and the fact that he has a genuine love for the environment. We think he’ll be someone that at least we can have pretty open dialogue with. And it will be one where he will listen to and genuinely appreciate our input.”
With this new air of opportunity and a new administration that has made economic development a primary priority, Kharbanda says the HEC developed three broad priorities of interest regarding the environment that identify the needs of all interested parties.
The first ideal in this three-pronged outlook is a focus on development and the belief that environmental protection translates into the expedited clean up of contaminated sites in both rural and urban areas.
“Given that communities, urban and rural, are focusing a lot more in in-fill development — revitalizing main streets in rural Indiana, revitalizing downtowns in urban areas and inner city neighborhoods — that it is in the economic interest of those communities, rural and urban, to see proper levels of funding for clean up programs that lead to economically-valuable properties,” says Kharbanda.
An emphasis on cleanup efforts requires increased funding for IDEM, a state agency that has lost more than 25 percent of its overall operating budget over the last 10 years.
The second ideal involves quality of life development. Life quality ripples in to so many other areas of concern for businesses — education, health, morale, etc. — and environmental amenities are a vital part of a happy healthy workforce.
“We see that in the increased interest in trails, mass transit, bikeways, etc.,” says Kharanda. “With respect to the second topic of boosting quality of life, that has taken a few different forms, with a push for higher funding for DNR.”
Kharbanda says the additional funding for DNR would be targeted for conservation programming — for things like land trusts and nature preserves — as well as mass transit, passenger rail and proper funding for water infrastructure.
The third ideal is to make sure that the intersections where the environment and the economy meet are stable and that any conflicts between the two are met with wins on both sides.
“The best example of that is the clean energy economy,” says Kharbanda. “There is concern that we may see a de-stabilization in the investment climate for clean energy.”
The elimination of the Energizing Indiana program — a program conceived and developed during the Mitch Daniels administration — was the first crumble in that instability. Kharbanda says the revival of efforts to end net metering and destabilize the state’s solar energy industry would ripple across all of the state’s clean energy economy.
The connections between the environment and the economy are logical and something that the new administration could get behind. However the roadblock appears in the form of increased funding for two state agencies at a time when the state is again projected to take in less money in the coming years. It’s a challenge Kharbanda understands, but feels both IDEM and DNR have been de-funded so low that their effectiveness has been compromised and there is no road to the future without funding increases.