State lawmakers take pass on bills aimed at wooing Amazon HQ2

State lawmakers are poised to wrap up this year's legislative session without taking action to boost central Indiana's chances of luring Amazon's second headquarters and its tempting promise of 50,000 high-paying jobs.

In mid-January, shortly after Indiana was named a top-20 finalist to land Amazon HQ2, Indiana House Speaker Brian Bosma suggested there could be legislative action taken to facilitate incentives for the company if necessary, but no legislation was proposed.

In addition, lawmakers failed to change two other issues that might work against the headquarters bid when they shot down a proposed hate crimes law and failed to lift a ban on allowing Indianapolis to consider building a light-rail mass-transit system.

Despite a pro-business history, the General Assembly's large Republican majorities didn't rally around either proposal. The hate crimes measure faced opposition from social conservatives, and anti-tax groups opposed the cost of a yet-unplanned Indianapolis commuter rail network.

Advocates say the setbacks are a collective shrug toward landing what would be the largest economic development prize in state history after the Seattle-based online retail giant included Indianapolis on its list of 20 remaining new headquarters contenders in January.

Republican leaders, however, maintain that such steps catering to Amazon aren't necessary before the legislative session ends Wednesday because Indiana's low-tax environment and lower cost of living are attractive incentives already.

"It feels a little premature to go out there and create something before you know whether you're in the game or not," said Senate leader David Long, R-Fort Wayne.

House Speaker Brian Bosma also downplayed the idea that any new legislation would help the bid.

"The problem with enacting anything is that you play your cards for all other states to see," the Indianapolis Republican said. "So, at the governor's request, we're just going to keep cards close to the vest at this point."

Indiana University business professor Mohan Tatikonda said the lack of progress on the issues will not benefit the city's bid to woo Amazon.

"The best case that we can hope for is that it makes no difference," Tatikonda said.

Indiana lawmakers for years have faced pressure from social conservatives who argue that a hate crimes law would create a special protected class of victims. This year was no different. The bill died in the Senate without even a vote in January, less than two weeks after Amazon announced its headquarters candidates.

The state's recent action on similar conservative social issues has provoked national backlash and even boycott threats. In 2015, then-Gov. Mike Pence signed a religious freedom law creating a possible legal defense for businesses that objected to serving gay people. Lawmakers later made changes to that law.

Atlanta is the other city on Amazon's headquarters list in any of the five states without a hate crimes law.

Another concern in the quest for Amazon is the state's light rail ban in central Indiana.

A measure to overturn the ban was approved by the House in a 90-5 vote. But it stalled in the Senate as opponents questioned whether a high-cost light rail project would raise taxes. They wanted the money instead used to fix potholes in roads.

Rep. Justin Moed, D-Indianapolis, the bill sponsor, said failure to advance the bill sends a negative message to the business community.

"I am disappointed that the Senate chose to play politics instead of working on job creation," he said.

The Indianapolis mayor's office and state economic development officials declined to comment about the possible impact of those failed bills on the Amazon bid.

But Indianapolis Deputy Mayor Angela Smith-Jones told The Indianapolis Star in January that Amazon has been "pretty explicit" about the importance it places on mass transit and diversity.

"So to that point, I would say these matters are specific with regard to that bid," she said.

Still, Indiana could score high in other categories that would be attractive to companies like Amazon, experts say.

Michael Hicks, an economics professor at Ball State University, said that the four research universities and a relatively lower cost of living that Indiana can offer could appeal to Amazon.

Tatikonda agreed, saying that "it doesn't come down to just one thing. There are other factors that are meaningful."

Amazon has said it will make a decision this year.

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