Editorial Roundup: Indiana

Anderson Herald Bulletin. November 11, 2022.

Editorial: Decisions on solar farms require listening to public

One of the nation’s largest solar farms is being considered in northwest Indiana. The 13,000-acre Mammoth Solar project, or the size of 9,849 football fields, is expected to annually generate energy for 275,000 households.

Although there are protests against the construction, it is proposed to be built on farmland.

Solar currently accounts for 3% of the nation’s electricity supply. However, the Biden administration has goals of eliminating or offsetting emissions by 2050. To do that, land equal to a maximum of 0.5% of the contiguous United States’ surface area would be needed for solar growth. That’s about twice the size of Massachusetts.

Farms account for approximately 4% of all land in the United States.

Is farmland the right resource to abandon for energy needs? Transferring farmland to solar farms is a complex and political issue — more than a farmer just receiving lease payments from a solar contractor. Transferees might encounter local zoning ordinances, additional tax liabilities and future environmental uses that could affect soil or wildlife, among other concerns.

In April, the Purdue University Extension released an assessment that explored the use of site-appropriate, low-growing seed mixtures that would be friendly to pollinating insects or even grazing sheep under solar panels with accommodating heights. Pollinator-friendly land is becoming more popular; it helps improve soil quality and requires less mowing.

In Indiana, a solar land base rate formula, signed into law in 2021, is to be used to assess land beneath utility-grade solar energy installations. It explains how property owned or used by a public utility is to be taxed. In general, such land in central Indiana has a median assessment cap of $13,000 per acre.

Certainly, the assessment formula benefits utilities, but incentives are forming for farmland use as nearly 15 projects are planned for rural Indiana sites.

But the biggest hindrance to solar farms is, quite simply, confusion and misinformation.

Researchers at Michigan State University called it the wind social gap theory, a mix of community attitudes, politics and investor goals. The arguments for and against solar now have a name.

Concerning the Mammoth Solar project, remonstrators have formed a group notably known as Pulaski County Against Solar. Opponents recently won their case in the Indiana Court of Appeals, which found that the county zoning board’s “arbitrary and capricious” approval of Mammoth Solar’s application was prejudicial to the residents’ participating in public hearings.

Local communities should evaluate whether solar farms will boost their property tax base and, among other concerns, pay for roads and fire protection services near the site.

Local zoning authorities must hold meaningful and transparent engagement among residents, local officials and developers with the aim of avoiding distrust. It is a guideline for all Hoosier communities to keep in mind.

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Indianapolis Business Journal. November 13, 2022.

Editorial: Children in underrepresented communities need visible mentors

If you can see it and believe it, then you can achieve it.

That’s a variation of a quote from Arnold Schwarzenegger in his autobiography, “Total Recall: My Unbelievably True Life Story.” And it’s quite appropriate in describing what many people think is needed to increase diversity in highly professional careers related to science, technology, engineering and math.

Underrepresented communities need to see people like themselves in these fields if we as a society are to ever substantially increase the numbers of minority and immigrant children willing to step toward a career path that could lead them to becoming doctors, scientists, engineers and more.

A Pew Research Center report released earlier this year shows there has been little progress in increasing the share of Black graduates from a college-level STEM program over the past decade.

But the center’s poll of Black Americans found a widely shared view of how to solve the problem. About 54% of those polled said more visible examples of high achievers in these fields who are Black would make young Black people a lot more likely to pursue college degrees in STEM.

In recent years, we’ve been heartened to see several Indianapolis-area efforts to increase workplace diversity already putting this approach into practice.

In this week’s Focus section, readers will find a story about Republic Airways’ efforts to put middle-schoolers and older students from underrepresented communities in contact with pilots, mechanics and flight attendants who look like them.

Last month, the Aviation Career Summit drew more than 1,100 students from across the state to crawl into cockpits, try virtual-reality experiences and chat with Black and Latino pilots already on the job.

On Saturday, Community Health Network is bringing the Black Men in White Coats program to Lawrence North High School to introduce Black youth to Black medical professionals and urge them to consider a career in medicine.

As Dr. Anthony Sanders, a Black obstetrician-gynecologist with Community Health, told IBJ’s John Russell: “A lot of folks in our communities, unfortunately, just haven’t had the exposure to the process to know how to begin.”

Other ongoing programs in recent years also have been doing the laudable work of exposing young people to potential careers they might not have otherwise ever considered.

Junior Achievement of Central Indiana’s JobSpark annually provides area youth opportunities to explore many careers and talk to professionals already in the field.

Also, Indianapolis-based Vision Three Inc. is in the process of launching an $80 million initiative to allow students across the state to use virtual-reality labs to envision what certain careers could look like for them.

We applaud all these efforts and hope there will soon be more so that we can soon say minority communities are no longer underrepresented in high-paying STEM careers.

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Fort Wayne Journal Gazette. November 13, 2022.

Editorial: There might be temptation to spend state’s record reserves

Indiana ended its fiscal year June 30 with $6.1 billion in reserve. The amount is unprecedented – $1.24 billion more than anticipated – and helped Gov. Eric Holcomb sway lawmakers to return $200 to each taxpayer during a special legislative session in August.

“I plan to present a biennium budget that will address more support for our public health system, salary increases for state employees, additional funding in K-12 education and another round of funds dedicated to the READI program to help local communities improve their overall quality of life,” Holcomb said of the coming legislative session in a statement July 15.

Even with extraordinary reserves, lawmakers will face a large funding hole while building the 2023-24 state budget, says Michael Hicks, a Ball State economist and director of the university’s Center for Business and Economic Research. Filling it will be much harder than choosing where to spend the state’s surplus, he said.

“The problem with Indiana’s rainy day fund – funds, actually – is that they are mostly the result of money illusion that accompanies inflation,” Hicks told The Journal Gazette Wednesday. “The state passed a two-year budget (in 2021) that assumed 2.1% inflation. In reality, inflation over the biennium will be closer to 15% or higher.

“So, we enter the budget session in January with a large surplus that is a mirage,” he said.

Indiana’s General Assembly won’t be the only fiscal body with that issue. According to a report from the Pew Charitable Trusts, U.S. states grew their collective rainy day funds by $37.7 billion in fiscal 2021 alone, driving the total held among all states to $114.6 billion – a record high. Wyoming, North Dakota, Alaska and New Mexico have more than 100 days’ worth of operating costs in reserve.

Indiana has enough in its rainy day funds to finance state government for 33 days.

The cost of providing government services – education, public safety and road maintenance – has grown more quickly than inflation, which was 7.7% nationally in October, the Bureau of Labor Statistics reported Thursday. Moving forward, Hicks said, public services will need a huge injection of cash.

“The quickly spreading ‘teacher shortage’ is one example of the problem,” Hicks said. “There’s almost no job a college graduate could take that pays worse than teaching in Indiana. So, filling vacant slots or keeping existing teachers on staff is already a crisis-level event across many school corporations, and will be a statewide problem by August next year.”

Besides the governor’s preference for funding increases in public health and K-12 education, higher salaries for state employees and additional quality-of-life funding for Hoosier communities, state lawmakers have spending priorities of their own. House Speaker Todd Huston, R-Fishers, said last month that Rep. Greg Steuerwald, R-Avon, will author a bill in the coming session to address mental-health funding.

Also on the table is a multimillion-dollar upgrade to the Bureau of Motor Vehicles’ operating system and high construction costs for multiple ongoing capital improvement projects, the Indiana Capital Chronicle reported in October.

Throughout the pandemic, Republicans in the General Assembly touted reserves for keeping state government solvent. And since states can’t run a deficit by printing money, most need a large rainy day fund – at least 5% of revenue – and more in a state with more volatile tax revenue, Hicks said.

The nation’s economic future remains uncertain. Inflation is high, federal COVID aid won’t be renewed and 50% of firms anticipate layoffs within the next six to 12 months, according to a PricewaterhouseCoopers survey of 722 U.S. executives in August.

There might be temptation in the Statehouse to use the inflation-generated surplus for one-time expenditures in the next two-year budget. Lawmakers and the governor, together, must prioritize spending needs and share them with taxpayers. The focus must be on Indiana’s future, and top of the list should be investment in education.

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