The Indiana Chamber of Commerce will try to tackle several legislative priorities this year that have failed to pass the Indiana General Assembly in recent years.
The statewide business group on Monday announced its lobbying agenda, which includes support for passing a hate crimes bill and increasing the state’s cigarette tax—two issues that have been previously debated but have not passed through the Indiana General Assembly.
A bias-motivated crimes bill could see a friendlier environment this year, though. Gov. Eric Holcomb has already announced support for such legislation. The Democratic leaders in each chamber—Rep. Phil GiaQuinta of Fort Wayne and Sen. Tim Lanane of Anderson—agreed that this could be the year for the bill. But Republican House Speaker Brian Bosma said the specific language of the legislation will matter.
Bosma suggested the easiest path to approval would be to adopt the definition of “bias crime” that is already in state code and to make it an aggregator instead of a separate crime. But the current definition does not include gender identity, and Bosma acknowledges that omission will cause some debate.
“Not everyone will be happy, but I think that’s where discussions have broken down in the past,” Bosma said.
He recommended trying to pass legislation without gender identity this session and possibly adding it to the law in the future.
“As society changes, so do the representatives,” Bosma said.
Lanane said he’s concerned that the legislation cover all classes in order to make it a meaningful law.
“If we don’t do it this session, then I say shame on us,” Lanane said.
Two Republican state senators have already drafted legislation that includes gender identity in preparation for the session, which starts in January. The bill drafted by Sen. Ron Alting of Lafayette and Sen. Mike Bohacek of Michiana Shores covers bias-motivated crimes based on race, religion, color, sex, gender identity, disability, national origin, ancestry and sexual orientation.
The chamber's position on bias crimes legislation also includes the words gender identity, but the organization has emphasized that the overriding goal is to make sure Indiana is no longer one of five states without such a law, so the language proposed needs to be able to pass the General Assembly.
One of the chamber’s other big priorities—reducing the state’s smoking rate—could also face some hurdles. The chamber is advocating to increase the cigarette tax from $1 to $3 per pack and increase the smoking age from 18 to 21 years old.
Last year, the chamber also pushed to increase the smoking age, but the idea was not supported by top lawmakers.
This year, Bosma said there is probably more support for changing the smoking age than there would be for increasing the tax, but that doesn’t mean it’s not possible.
Also on the topic of health care, the chamber opposes legalizing medical (and recreational) marijuana, which is expected to be a big topic during the session.
The Public Health, Behavioral Health and Human Services interim committee listened to hours of testimony last month on legalizing medical marijuana, but did not reach any conclusion on recommendations to send to the General Assembly.
Chamber CEO Kevin Brinegar said they oppose legalizing marijuana at any level because it has yet to be approved by the Federal Drug Administration. Holcomb has taken a similar position in the past.
One topic the chamber may see success on though is accelerating the date when the job of state superintendent of public instruction will become an appointed position, rather than an elected one. The position is already set to become an appointed one starting in 2025, but the chamber would like to see that changed to 2021.
Indiana Superintendent Jennifer McCormick announced in October that she would not seek re-election in 2020, which opens the position in 2021. Top lawmakers from both parties signaled that the change could be an easy one to make, given McCormick’s announcement.
“I think it’s like, why not?” Lanane said.
Other priorities for the chamber include:
— Requiring high school students to complete at least one career-technical education credit in order to graduate, beginning with the class of 2023, as a way to increase STEM education, since jobs in those fields are in high demand;
— Further evaluating the state’s existing workforce and education programs and increasing funding for Holcomb’s Next Level initiatives;
— Increasing investment in the state’s water infrastructure, citing research that shows hundreds of millions of dollars are needed annually to maintain drinking water and wastewater infrastructure;
— Making more of an effort to expand broadband internet access into rural communities;
—Reducing the state’s business personal property tax.