Education bill, carbon project get going over at crackerbarrel

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Feb. 12—Indiana Senate Bill 202, which critics say impinges on academic freedom and the collegiate tenure process, and Wabash Valley Resources' carbon sequestration project were the topics most on the minds of residents at Saturday's Legislative Crackerbarrel at the Vigo County Public Library.

Participating local lawmakers included state Sen. Greg Goode, R-Terre Haute; state Rep. Tonya Pfaff, D-Terre Haute; state Rep. Bruce Borders, R-Jasonville; and state Rep. Bob Heaton, R-Terre Haute.

The legislature is halfway through its session, with the House and Senate passing numerous bills that will move on to the other chamber Monday. Both Pfaff and Borders said there were a number of bills floating around that they hope don't survive the session.

Pfaff pointed out that of 112 bills passed in the House, only five were sponsored by Democrats. "Our side is missing a bit of the conversation," she said. Indiana Republicans hold supermajorities in both chambers.

Goode, who just joined the Senate in January when he replaced Jon Ford, said his goal is to "balance my convictions with finding common ground."

The oft-discussed Senate Bill 202 suggests that professors could be denied tenure if it is determined that they are denying students free academic expression — or even if the "likelihood" of such behavior is perceived.

Critics say the potential for legislative overreach in this bill is concerning to many, particularly educators. The panel was asked how punitive action could possibly be justified for a "likelihood."

Goode admitted that he voted for the measure, though he found parts of it problematic. He added an amendment to the bill that he believed would enhance free speech — colleges funded by the state would have to have one trustee that lives in the county where the school is located. Indiana State University is one such institution of higher learning — it has no trustees residing in Vigo County.

Pfaff said she was categorically against the bill, though she approved of Goode's amendment.

"It creates a landscape unfriendly to professors," she said of SB 202. "A legislative body should not determine when tenure is up."

Many recent meetings open to the public have featured fervent discussion over Wabash Valley Resources being allowed to construct two deep underground injection wells for carbon dioxide in West Terre Haute and Vermillion County. Saturday's crackerbarrel was no different.

House Bill 1209, allowing carbon sequestration in those locations, was passed in April of 2023, and the public has endured much consternation and worry since.

One attendee asked if that bill didn't violate the civil rights of those who lived near the proposed wells. Another accused WVR of padding the campaign coffers of lawmakers who voted for it. Others wondered if the bill could somehow be rescinded.

"I'm not sure it can be overturned," Heaton said. "I don't know how we can stop it."

Borders said he will bring up the subject in a caucus this week.

Goode said he had told WVR, "Your local outreach needs to be greatly improved."

Another controversial topic was broached when one attendee asked the politicians their opinions of Indiana Gov. Eric Holcomb's decision to dispatch Indiana National Guard troops to help protect the southern border.

Heaton and Borders said they supported the decision. Pfaff said she supported Gov. Holcomb, but there were a lot of problems closer to home to address. "You've got to help your fellow Hoosiers, as well," she said.

Goode said he supported the decision, but remains mindful of how immigration has greatly benefited the country.

League of Women Voters Co-President Carly Schmitt asked how misinformation about the integrity of elections could be stemmed.

Goode said he believed that the 2020 election was not stolen, that Russia was not successful in affecting the outcome of the 2016 election, and that the federal government should not get involved with how states conduct their elections.

Goode said, "It should be left to states to reinforce the institutions of our great republic."

Pfaff, noting that Indiana doesn't exactly have robust voter turnout compared to other states, simply encouraged people to register to vote and then use that right.

Heaton replied that he supported the electoral college. Borders said he had seen examples of voter fraud.

Another question concerned seniors being harassed by ubiquitous calls on their landline telephones.

Goode pointed out some of the positives of artificial intelligence, also known as AI — "Popular cures of the world's diseases could be resolved via AI" — but said it could also be used for "nefarious schemes." He said he would join an AI task force to "go after bad actors."

Moderator Rondrell Moore of WTHI-TV 10 received a round of applause when someone in the audiences congratulated him for recently getting engaged.

David Kronke can be reached at 812-231-4232 or at david.kronke@tribstar.com.