Business leaders say they’ll fight for changes in what is now ‘not a hate crimes bill’

Key business leaders say changes the Republican-led Senate made Tuesday to a hate crimes bill are unacceptable and could lead to the kind of backlash the state experienced after passing a religious freedom restoration law in 2015.

The changes—which stripped the bill of categories of victims against whom crimes would qualify for tougher penalties—took many of those leaders by surprise.

And they pledged on Wednesday to redouble their efforts to persuade legislators that passing what they call a comprehensive hate crimes law is vital to the state’s economic development and talent-recruitment efforts.

Mark Fisher, chief policy officer for the Indy Chamber, said the Senate’s action may have been a much-needed jolt to community leaders.

“We had a pretty wild 24-hour swing,” Fisher said. “This is the wake-up call people need to really truly engage on this issue.”

Just days before, a Senate committee voted 9-1 for a version of Senate Bill 12 that business leaders and Gov. Eric Holcomb supported. That version said that if a perpetrator committed a crime based on bias about the victim’s gender, sexual orientation, religion, race and other characteristics, he or she could face a harsher penalty.

But the Senate on Tuesday stripped those characteristics out of the bill, leaving behind no definition for the term “bias.”

Michael O’Connor, senior director of state government affairs for Eli Lilly and Co., said he didn’t know what happened between those votes. But he said Lilly cannot and will not ever support the new version of the bill.

“It’s not a hate crimes bill,” O’Connor said.

Supporters of the revised bill say it gives judges more flexibility at sentencing, and enhanced sentences could now apply to a perpetrator who acted out of bias against anyone, rather than only those who fall into specific categories.

But opponents argue the bill is no longer meaningful and suggests that Indiana is not a welcoming state.

Business leaders have been gearing up for the legislative fight for months and argue that passing a bias crimes law is critical to attracting talented workers to the state. Gov. Eric Holcomb made passing a hate crimes law one of his top legislative priorities.

And in the Senate, supporters were feeling fairly confident.

“By our vote count, we had the votes to get this done on the Senate floor,” Fisher said.

That count included both Republicans and Democrats who planned to vote yes.

But the Republican caucus met for three hours behind closed doors on Tuesday and emerged with plans to change the bill with an amendment offered by Indianapolis Sen. Aaron Freeman. That’s the change that removed the list of victim categories.

Fisher said he’s also not sure what happened between the committee meeting and the Senate vote that changed legislative minds—especially given that several Republican committee members voted for the bill with the list on Monday and then voted in support of the amendment that stripped the list on Tuesday.

Fifteen Republicans who voted in favor of a hate crimes bill that included a similar list in 2016 also voted for the amendment on Tuesday, which perplexed some supporters.

“The dynamic completely shifted,” Fisher said. “When you have super-majorities, the caucus makes the decisions.”

Holcomb also made clear in a statement released Tuesday that he doesn’t support the bill because he doesn’t believe it would get Indiana off the list of states without a bias crime law.

The Anti-Defamation League, one of the groups that analyzes whether states have such protections in place, agrees. In a tweet, the ADL Midwest said “without its list of protected characteristics, SB 12 is not a real hate crime law.”

Democrats and business leaders have suggested the amended bill could cause a controversy as bad—if not worse—than what the state faced over Religious Freedom Restoration Act, or RFRA. In that case, national organizations and companies said they wouldn’t bring events to Indianapolis because they believed the law allowed discrimination against people who are gay or lesbian.

Among them was CEO Marc Benioff, who said he canceled events planned for the city after the law passed.

The uproar led state lawmakers to pass a bill to “fix” the RFRA legislation, but the publicity affected the ability of leaders—especially in Indianapolis—to recruit conventions and other events.

Now there’s fear among business leaders that a similar reaction could erupt over the hate crimes law.

“I hope that doesn’t happen, but I think we’re running that risk right now,” said Tim Cook, CEO of KSM Location Advisors, which helps companies with site selection and the negotiation of incentives.

Cook said that even though some lawmakers may be skeptical that the hate crimes issue could weigh so heavily on economic development deals, it definitely can be the deciding factor for some companies.

“This is not something that has been blown out of proportion. It’s a really big deal,” Cook said. “From our standpoint, we’re in the trenches every day doing deals, and we know that this is meaningful.”

Salesforce Marketing Cloud CEO Bob Stutz, who oversees the company's significant operations in Indianapolis, tweeted Tuesday that he was "extremely disappointed that the Senate weakened" SB 12. He said Salesforce "stands for #EquityForAll and urges the House to amend the list of all the protected classes back into the bill."

Still, one major player that’s stayed quiet so far is the Indiana Chamber of Commerce. The state’s business advocacy organization has been lobbying for a hate crimes bill that includes the list, and CEO Kevin Brinegar testified in support of SB 12 at Monday’s hearing. But the chamber has not commented on the amended version of legislation and isn’t expected to until after the Senate votes on the amended bill.

Holcomb has said there’s plenty of time for lawmakers to amend the legislation. But that’s expected to be even more difficult in the Indiana House, where Speaker Brian Bosma has already said his caucus supports a bill without a specific list of victim categories. 

Cook said business leaders are in for a tough fight.

 “It does make you question whether they have enough influence to get it across the finish line,” Cook said.

The Senate could vote on the bill as soon as Thursday. The deadline to vote on it is Tuesday.

Fisher said he expects the bill to pass the Senate with only Republican support and head to the House. Fisher said the Indy Chamber then will push to amend the bill in a House committee, but if it doesn’t happen there, business leaders will fight for an amendment on the House floor.

“This is not over by any means,” Fisher said. “Yesterday was a big wake-up call to be much more proactive and vocal in their support.”

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