Business leaders have emerged from the last two sessions of the Indiana General Assembly with something less than winning records when it comes to the fights that require the biggest investments of political capital and money.
During the 2016 session, the business community left the session unsuccessful in its quest to grant civil rights for LGBT people. And this year, top business leaders advocated strongly for expanding the state’s fledgling preschool pilot program—but the final budget contained less than half of the $50 million annual pledge they requested.
On the surface, that might raise questions about the influence of the business community inside the Statehouse—but leaders say it’s not quite that simple.
Preschool and LGBT rights might be the issues that garnered the most news coverage, said Indiana Chamber President Kevin Brinegar, but business groups have a broad array of legislative priorities—many not sexy enough to warrant widespread public interest.
And business groups say they are actually pleased with the outcome of the 2017 session, which ended with lawmakers approving a major infrastructure bill that they largely favored.
“It’s a bit a matter of perspective,” Brinegar said. “We put scores on the board in every issue area that our lobbying team worked on. That hasn’t always been the case.”
That perspective includes knowing what to call a win.
Though the 2016 session ended without expanding civil rights protections to LGBT people in the state—an argument preceded by the controversial 2015 Religious Freedom Restoration Act—lawmakers also didn’t take any steps the chamber considered backward.
“Sometimes, a win is to not lose,” Brinegar said. He also noted that, since the RFRA maelstrom, several Indiana communities have passed civil rights ordinances.
Eli Lilly and Co. lobbyist Mike O’Connor said there was “some pressure to go backwards.” But stopping that “was the work of the business community and lots of folks who represent us at the Statehouse.”
And preschool advocates knew their $50 million annual funding request was ambitious—though they maintain that investment is really what’s necessary.
“We’re not giving up,” said Mark Fisher, a lobbyist at the Indy Chamber. “We’re grateful to the Legislature for doubling the investment, but we don’t believe it’s enough. We’re going to continue to come back and advocate.”
O’Connor said spending this year was tempered by lawmakers’ caution over budget forecasts.
“You rarely get everything you ask for,” he said. “There’s a lot of people asking and there’s a lot less to give than people are asking for.”
House Speaker Brian Bosma acknowledged the business community “threw their chips in” on the preschool and LGBT issues, but he said they still have plenty of influence at the Statehouse.
“When employers are having a significant problem, we tend to listen because that results in fewer Hoosiers employed in well-paying jobs,” Bosma said. “They probably aren’t talking about LGBT issues quite so much because we’re in a fairly good place in that regard.”
Leaders said there were other issues they would consider a win from the session, including a new $15 million economic development fund that can be used to encourage direct flights and work on the Regional Cities effort, $2 million to enhance STEM programs for kids, and $10 million for a STEM teacher recruitment fund. The Legislature also voted to transition to what it considers a “user fee” system to pay for roads and approved some tech-sector-specific items.
“It’s quite remarkable how much was done and with so little controversy,” Fisher said. “It’s been a fairly boring session, but after the past five years, boring is pretty good. We’re making significant investments in a lot of foundational issues.”
But some critics bemoaned that workforce development issues—which seemed like a big priority at the beginning of the session—didn’t get more play.
Brian Burton, president of the Indiana Manufacturers Association, is calling for a “major restructuring of our workforce development system,” including an employer training tax credit that did not advance to the finish line this year.
“We think the efforts there generally fell short and do not meet the needs of employers,” Burton said. “We have a very large, and in many respects, inefficient system. We added more programs to that system. As we have told people, it’s very difficult to have an employer-driven system without the involvement of employers.”
O’Connor said if businesses want more influence, they need to show lawmakers they’re engaged in the issues—and be willing to invest money and time to be visible during the session.
“What we call the business community, some people call special interest groups,” he said. “It’s not the Legislature’s job to make sure our voices are heard. It’s our job. The business community has the opportunity to be heard as much as they’re willing to take the time to be heard.”•