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IEDC oversight bill advances, while bills limiting large water withdrawals stall
The Indiana Senate approved a bill on Thursday increasing oversight over the Indiana Economic Development Corp., amid concerns of how the state agency has handled the LEAP Innovation and Research District in Lebanon.
The legislation, which passed by a 44-5 vote, now moves to the House for consideration.
Senate Bill 295 would add two members of the Indiana General Assembly to the IEDC’s governing board as non-voting representatives, and would require the IEDC to notify a county or municipality before it purchased land that exceeded 100 acres.
Had the bill already been enacted previously, it would have changed how the IEDC proceeded with the LEAP District, a 9,000-acre tech hub in Lebanon. The IEDC’s handling of the LEAP district has been criticized from the beginning.
The state began buying up land for the project years ago — well before some local Boone County leaders and the general public knew about plans for the district.
Plus, Tippecanoe County leaders and residents are worried about the IEDC’s plan to draw potentially tens of millions of gallons of water from the Wabash Alluvial Aquifer for the LEAP District. The IEDC has emphasized it will take water only if studies show a large withdrawal won’t impact other water users, and it would be involved only if the agency attracted a large water-using company to the LEAP District.
Lawmakers are also optimistic that having House Speaker Todd Huston and Senate President Pro Tem Rodric Bray appoint two non-voting members to the IEDC’s governing board would increase the agency’s level of transparency.
Sen. Spencer Deery, R-West Lafayette, called the bill “an important first step.”
“With large funding and great power come great responsibilities, and greater expectations for transparency and accountability,” said Deery, a co-author on Senate Bill 295. “Otherwise trust erodes and support for economic development dwindles.”
Some Democrats voted against the bill because the minority party was not given any appointments to the board.
While SB 295 is advancing, a pair of identical bills limiting the IEDC’s ability to move large amounts of water won’t move this legislative session. House Bill 1305 and Senate Bill 249 didn’t get a hearing before the deadline to pass bills out of committee.
Language from the bills could still be amended into other legislation before session ends in mid-March.
Indiana doctors performed fewer than four abortions a week during the final three months of 2023, continuing the sharp downturn under the state’s near-total abortion ban.
Doctors reported 46 abortions from October through December, according to the state Department of Health’s latest quarterly report on abortions.
The ban that took effect in August allows abortions only in cases of rape or incest before 10 weeks post-fertilization or to protect the life and health of the mother or because of a lethal fetal anomaly up to 20 weeks of pregnancy. It also voided the state licenses of all Indiana abortion clinics, allowing abortions only in hospitals or hospital-owned surgery centers.
Of the abortions reported during the fourth quarter of last year, 22 were because of lethal fetal anomalies, 21 were attributed to health risks to the pregnant woman and three were due to rape or incest, according to the state report released last week.
The 46 abortions during the fourth quarter represented a 97% drop from the 1,724 reported during the same three months in 2022 while the abortion ban was blocked by a judge’s order later overturned by the state Supreme Court.
Indiana Right to Life, the state’s most prominent anti-abortion group, hailed the decline but joined criticism of the Department of Health for not releasing individual terminated pregnancy reports as it had done before the ban went into effect.
The agency has said it no longer releases those reports under state law that declares medical records confidential because of more detailed information required from doctors.
“The Indiana Department of Health is blocking public access to terminated pregnancy reports,” Indiana Right to Life President Mike Fichter said in a statement Monday. “This manipulation creates a lack of transparency, making it impossible to verify these numbers are accurate — and that Indiana law is being followed related to abortion activity.”
Abortion-rights supporters have argued that the ban wrongly limits access to health care. They’ve also maintained that abortion care would largely be unavailable outside Indianapolis even in situations meeting the limited exceptions, with the procedure no longer available at abortion clinics.
All but two of the 46 abortions during the reporting period were performed at Indianapolis hospitals, with the most at Riley Health Maternity Tower (21) and Eskenazi Hospital (10). The only hospital-performed abortions outside Indianapolis were one each at Dupont Hospital and Parkview Regional Medical Center, both in Fort Wayne.
The Senate has backed off a proposal that would block lawyers who’ve faced recent serious misconduct sanctions from running for state attorney general. A Senate committee had added a provision to an elections-related bill last week as Republican Attorney General Todd Rokita remains under scrutiny from the state’s attorney disciplinary commission after being reprimanded by …
The scope of what Indiana’s public access counselor could consider in reviewing open government matters would be strictly limited under provisions added to legislation in the closing days of the legislative session.
Amendments that a Senate committee made this week to House Bill 1338 would also reduce the office’s independence by eliminating the four-year term the access counselor has after being appointed by the governor.
The Legislature in 1999 established the access counselor position to review questions from the public, government officials and others about the state’s open meetings and public records laws.
The public access counselor’s office, with two attorneys and one other staff member, issues dozens of advisory opinions each year but has no authority to enforce the access laws or punish violators.
Advocate says amendment ‘guts’ counselor’s authority
Sen. Aaron Freeman, R-Indianapolis, offered the amendment allowing the access counselor’s advisory opinions to consider only “the public access laws, as plainly written,” and “valid opinions of Indiana courts.”
Freeman, chair of the Senate Corrections and Criminal Law Committee, expressed frustration with Public Access Counselor Luke Britt’s opinions without giving specifics during the Tuesday meeting when the provision was added.
“The public access counselor, it says that he, in this case, shall liberally construe the code,” Freeman said. “He’s issued some opinions that I vehemently disagree with and I think others in our body and in this building vehemently disagree with.”
The amendment “functionally guts” the access counselor’s ability to consider the context of a situation unless it has been directly addressed by the Legislature or court, said Amelia McClure, executive director of the Hoosier State Press Association.
“The code can never contemplate all of the different circumstances that public access concerns are going to arise,” McClure said. “So the public access counselor has to consider new technologies, what location, the circumstances of the conversation in a way that a civil code will never be able to contemplate.”
Britt was appointed access counselor in 2013 by then-Gov. Mike Pence and reappointed by Gov. Eric Holcomb in 2017 and 2021.
Britt, whose current term runs until Oct. 31, 2025, declined to comment to State Affairs on Freeman’s amendments. The governor’s office didn’t immediately reply Thursday to a request for comment.
The restrictions on the access counselor’s office were not raised during the first seven weeks of this year’s legislative session and became public only two days before the Senate committee’s deadline to take action.
Public access counselor’s role at issue
Some conservatives criticized an opinion Britt released last fall in which he concluded the Hamilton East Public Library Board in Fishers violated the open meetings law when two board members met with their attorneys at a coffee shop.
That opinion came amid public debate over a push by conservative members of that board to review all youth-section books and move those with “inappropriate” content to adult sections.
The opening section of Indiana’s public records law states it should be “liberally construed to implement this policy and place the burden of proof for the nondisclosure of a public record on the public agency that would deny access to the record.”
Freeman said during the committee meeting that he favored striking the “liberally construed” phrase from the law, but other senators thought that went too far.
The amendment limiting the access counselor’s authority was added to the bill on a 5-3 vote as Democratic Sen. Greg Taylor joined Freeman and other Republicans Mike Bohacek, Cyndi Carrasco and Eric Koch. Republicans Liz Brown and Sue Glick and Democrat Rodney Pol voted against the amendment.
Glick said the restriction on what the access counselor could consider didn’t make sense.
“You’re paying an attorney for their opinion, and now you’re limiting that,” Glick said.
Change would eliminate term of office
Freeman also advocated for an amendment eliminating the access counselor’s four-year term and making the position one that serves “at the pleasure of the governor.”
“When we have a new governor … I believe the governor should be able to pick the person that they’re choosing to serve,” Freeman said. “As any other appointed office, we serve at the privilege of the governor. So I believe this should be no different.”
Those people appointed to lead state departments can typically be removed at the governor’s discretion. However, hundreds of appointments to state boards and other positions, such as the state Election Division’s co-directors, are made for set terms.
McClure, the Hoosier State Press Association’s director, said eliminating the four-year term would take away some of the office’s independence from political concerns.
“That’s important when it’s an advisory opinion that’s interpreting actions of all kinds of different bodies that have all kinds of different political affiliations,” McClure said.
The full bill, which initially focused only on allowing local government boards to establish meeting decorum rules, could be taken up by the full Senate next week. The additions would still also need approval from the House before this year’s legislative session ends by March 14.
The American Civil Liberties Union of Indiana plans to continue its court fight against a state law banning all gender-affirming care for minors despite a federal appeals court order allowing full enforcement of the prohibition.
An order issued Tuesday by the 7th U.S. Circuit Court of Appeals struck down an injunction issued by a District Court judge last year that partially blocked the law that Republicans pushed through during the 2023 legislative session.
The three-judge panel didn’t explain its decision in the brief order, which was released 11 days after the judges heard oral arguments in Chicago.
The order lifts the injunction that Indianapolis-based Judge James Patrick Hanlon issued in June 2023 that stopped the state’s ban on puberty blockers and hormone treatments for transgender minors from taking effect as scheduled in July 2023.
The appeals court’s order said a full opinion would be issued later.
The ACLU of Indiana filed the lawsuit last year on behalf of four youths undergoing transgender treatments and an Indiana doctor who provides such care. They argue that the ban violated the U.S. Constitution’s equal protection guarantees and the rights of parents to decide medical treatment for their children.
“This ruling is beyond disappointing and a heartbreaking development for thousands of transgender youth, their doctors, and their families,” the ACLU said in a statement. “As we and our clients consider our next steps, we want all the transgender youth of Indiana to know this fight is far from over and we will continue to challenge this law until it is permanently defeated and Indiana is made a safer place to raise every family.”
Republican state Attorney General Todd Rokita, whose office has defended the law in court, hailed the decision.
“Our commonsense state law, banning dangerous and irreversible gender-transition procedures for minors, is now enforceable following the Seventh Circuit Court of Appeal’s newest order,” Rokita said in a social media statement. “We are proud to win this fight against the radicals who continue pushing this horrific practice on our children for ideological and financial reasons.”
Hanlon, who was appointed by former President Donald Trump, had allowed enforcement of the prohibition in 2023’s Senate Bill 480 on gender-affirming surgeries. He had blocked provisions to prohibit Indiana doctors from communicating with out-of-state doctors about gender-affirming care for their patients under 18.
The appeals court order did not state how the three judges voted in the case.
Two of the judges were appointed by Republican presidents — Kenneth Ripple by President Ronald Reagan and Michael Brennan by Trump. The third judge, Candace Jackson-Akiwumi, was appointed by President Joe Biden.