Election bills top today’s legislative roundup
25-foot law enforcement ‘buffer zone,’ utility bills also in action
Lawmakers advanced various election bills and a police 'buffer zone' on Monday, kicking off the week. (Leslie Bonilla Muñiz/Indiana Capital Chronicle)
Lawmakers tackled numerous topics Monday, highlighted by key election bills and a measure that could slow the retirement of coal-fired power plants.
A third bill creating a new misdemeanor crime if a person doesn’t move away from police activity also was debated.
A Senate committee approved a flurry of election changes Monday, all authored by Republican Rep. Tim Wesco of Osceola.
Members passed two bills unanimously, one modifying election date schedules and another addressing various election administration burdens. The latter included provisions such as filing reports when a candidate (or their campaign treasurer) has died and requiring all candidates for one office to appear on the same electronic voting screen.
But two other election bills faced opposition from Democrats and community activists, including the League of Women Voters, Common Cause and the ACLU.
The core of House Bill 1116 sought to alleviate the concerns of county clerks, including per diems and document storage fees. But two additions caught the attention of opponents, including one that would disenfranchise Hoosiers convicted of voter fraud and another extending the redistricting deadline for small cities and towns.
Under the latter, the redistricting deadline moves from Dec. 31 of last year to May 15 of this year, after the primary election. This concerned Angela Nussmeyer, the co-director of the Indiana Election Division.
She said moving the redistricting deadline means an incumbent politician who lost the primary election could simply shift the boundaries, cutting their opponent out to benefit themselves with a new opening on the November ballot.
“This creates opportunities to game the system,” Nussmeyer said.
A grassroots group, Indiana Local Government Redistricting, that tracks the process at the local level said many smaller cities and towns failed to redistrict, even though required to do so under Indiana law. Because of nuances in how local units of government operate, no one entity knew which were required to redistrict and which got a pass, group member Brett O’Bannon said.
“We feel that someone needs to put… effort into finding out which of Indiana’s 450 cities and towns with populations of fewer than 10,000 use which types of districts,” O’Bannon said. “Once it is clear which towns have to redistrict but didn’t, then someone needs to assist… (and) there may be hundreds of such cases.”
Attempts to strip the redistricting language, which Wesco said he would allow, failed as did efforts to remove the 10-year penalty for Hoosiers convicted of voter fraud – even though testimony demonstrated that enforcement of that provision would be spotty, at best.
Democrat-led efforts to amend a separate bill that faced opposition earlier this month failed, with the bill advancing out of the committee on a 6-2 vote.
Opponents say the bill would impose a hurdle for Hoosiers seeking to vote via a mail-in ballot by requiring extra identification measures, prompting the Indiana Democratic Party to weigh in on Monday morning.
“…The proposed bill is nothing more than an attempt to suppress the vote and limit access for a large number of Hoosiers, including nursing home residents,” said Mike Schmuhl, the party chair, in a statement. “Indiana already has one of the lowest voter turnout rates in the country, and adding unnecessary hurdles to mail and travel board voting will only further discourage already vulnerable Hoosiers from participating in our democracy. This is unacceptable.”
Other than the clerk’s bill with redistricting provisions, which needs to also pass the Senate Tax and Fiscal Policy Committee, the election bills now move for further consideration before the full Senate chamber.
House approves IURC oversight bill
Meanwhile, the House chamber on Monday voted 65-28 to advance Senate Bill 9, which would require utilities to provide the Indiana Utility Regulatory Commission (IURC) with at least six months notice if they plan to retire, sell or transfer a generating facility of at least an 80-megawatt capacity.
The latest version of the bill additionally includes a provision expanding the instances in which a utility can petition the IURC to recover costs related to a federal compliance project — before the project has been completed. Currently, utilities can only petition the IURC in instances where these costs have already been incurred.
Bill sponsor Rep. Ed Soliday, R-Valparaiso, said that language “is really important,” citing “at least” five related cases that are pending before the IURC.
But Rep. Matt Pierce, D-Bloomington, pushed back. He held that the bill shifts the risk from the utility and their shareholders “onto the backs of ratepayers.”
It also removes the requirement for the IURC to approve the utility’s method of complying with a federal mandate before it gets to the ratepayer’s bill.
“I think that what we’ve seen from the utility commission is that when you allow these utilities to go ahead down one path unilaterally and then book these things onto their accounting as a regulatory asset, the utility commission is very reluctant at that point to say no,” Pierce said. “You’re essentially taking away an important opportunity to fully air what really is the best path, as opposed to just arguing about, ‘Well, they chose a compliance path, they’ve already expended money. And now the question is, should they get reimbursed for that.’ You put the ratepayer in a much worse position in that scenario.”
Supporters maintain the bill, overall, will help ensure statewide energy reliability and keep Indiana from relying too heavily on natural gas. Some energy advocates are more hesitant, however, expressing concern that the measure could slow the state’s transition to cleaner energy sources.
The bill was changed in the House so the Senate must either accept the amendment or send the bill to conference committee for final negotiation.
Law enforcement ‘buffer zone’ advances
The Senate amended a bill that would create a 25-foot “buffer zone” around law enforcement officers conducting police business, similar to the existing provision currently in law for firefighters.
The bill lowers the original one from 150 feet to 25 feet, to keep it consistent between the various public safety agencies – but opponents worry it will degrade police accountability and transparency.
As amendment discussion digressed into theoretical situations that an officer might experience, bill sponsor Sen. Aaron Freeman said they didn’t address the heart of the bill and became an “academic exercise in suits.”
“On the street, when a law enforcement officer is engaged in their duties, this isn’t the way that stuff goes. There’s split second, life or death decisions that have to be made quickly,” Freeman, R-Indianapolis, said. “The moral of the story is if a law enforcement officer says, ‘Back up,’ back up.”
An amendment from a fellow Republican, Sen. Mike Young of Indianapolis, failed on a 16-33 vote.
Young said that the current law, written with firefighters in mind, allowed any family member to cross into a buffer zone if there’s a minor on the other side. But the expansion, for law enforcement officers, doesn’t allow even a parent to cross over.
“I know as a parent, the first thing I’m going to do is go to my child and protect them… and say, you don’t have to answer these questions,” Young said, using the example of an officer pulling over a teenage driver. “(A parent has) to stay away while an officer has a minor child… to me, that doesn’t make any sense.”
A full vote on the bill will come this week.
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