Gifts at least cause for public suspicion


South Bend Tribune

A recent Indianapolis Star report may feed suspicions the public already holds about the elected officials sworn to serve them.

And whose interests they’re representing.

According to the report, as Indiana legislators were considering important energy legislation, utilities and their political action committees were pouring millions into the General Assembly in gifts, entertainment, campaign contributions and lobbying.

Specifics of the largesse, centered about the passage of a bill phasing out net metering, which requires utilities to compensate customers who produce more energy than they consume, include:

  • During the 2015, 2016 and 2017 reporting periods, investor-owned utilities and the organization that represents them spent more than $109,000 entertaining Indiana General Assembly legislators. More than $32,000 was spent entertaining members of the Senate and House committees focused on utility legislation.
  • From 2014 to the first half of 2017, utilities spent $2.78 million on lobbying. More than $530,000 was spent in the first reporting period of 2017 alone, which included the 2017 legislative session and the months leading up to it.
  • The top recipient of the gifts and entertainment was Rep. Heath VanNatter, R-Kokomo, then-vice chair of the House Committees on Utilities, Energy and Telecommunications. He was treated to about $5,300 worth of meals, Indianapolis Colts games and other entertainment during the 2015, 2016 and 2017 reporting periods. His campaigns also received about $42,000 from PACs representing Indiana utilities since 2011.
  • Other top recipients are Rep. Eric Koch, R-Bedford and Sen. James Merritt, R-Indianapolis, who each received more than $34,000 from utility PACs; and Sen. Brandt Hershman, R-Wheatfield, who received at least $61,000.

The bill in question, Senate Bill 309, was firmly opposed by homeowners, small business owners and environmental advocates and passed in the House by only 13 votes. Its passage has cast Indiana’s developing solar installation industry into some uncertainty.

Of course lobbying on issues before legislators is a fact of life at the Statehouse, as are gift-giving and donations. And lawmakers would tell you — as they have in the past — that none of this determines how they vote.

We have no way of knowing what effect, if any, all those gifts, donations and lobbying had. But one thing is for sure: the appearance alone is cause for concern, as it invites suspicion that the interests lawmakers are serving aren’t those of their constituents.

This was distributed by Hoosier State Press Association.

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