The 2016 Legislative Session: Some Noteworthy Shots Made

Silhouette of Teen Boy Shooting a Basketball at Sunset, copy space

With the NCAA basketball tournament in full swing and baseball season just around the corner, slam dunks and grand slams are both center stage. Neither of those terms, however, can be used to describe the 2016 Indiana General Assembly session. We’ll have to settle for a solid jump shot or maybe a line drive double in the gap.

The number one priority for the Indiana Chamber and its business members was enhanced funding for roads and transportation infrastructure. A total of $1.1 billion, when counting money for local governments, is a strong start. What’s even more important is the commitment legislators made to address longer-term needs in the 2017 budget-writing session.

All four legislative caucuses and the governor’s office offered plans and spent considerable time working toward solutions. That is an excellent sign of even better things to come. In the education arena, the disastrous ISTEP test implementation in recent years led to several needed pieces of legislation. Teachers and schools will not be negatively impacted by the 2014-2015 test results, but all-important accountability remains in place and a summer panel – with the Indiana Chamber at the table – will determine a more suitable testing future for our state’s students.

Other positive legislative results included funding the third Regional Cities program, scholarships for prospective top-of-their-class teachers, a long-sought solution to the unregulated lawsuit lending industry and saving hundreds of millions of dollars with more appropriate property tax assessments of large retail facilities (aka “big box” stores).
Unfortunately, there were also two significant missed opportunities. Indiana must be seen as a welcoming place for all in order to retain and recruit top talent, new business investment and tourism. Failing to pass civil rights legislation doesn’t put Indiana in the strong position it could have been, or arguably needs to be. While this proved a bridge too
far for legislators to cross in this election year, all of our state leaders must find a way going forward to work together to craft a solution.

Despite bipartisan support, implementing a work share program barely even got out of the starting gate. Work share would benefit employees, employers and communities when the next economic downturn occurs. At the request of the Indiana Department of Workforce Development (DWD), the Indiana Chamber partnered with them to commission an independent study of why a work share program is needed. The Chamber also took the extra step of identifying viable funding options for the program’s administration. However, DWD still was unable to get on board. Until they do, this policy will, unfortunately, face an uphill climb.

If these last two items had been added to the plus column, we might just be talking slam dunks and grand slams. Still, there will be another game in town next year, and the Chamber will be back at it – pushing these policies and others that support making Indiana a more prosperous place for employers and their employees.

Read further analysis from Brinegar on several of these issues in this summary

RFRA 2.0 and Road Funding

statehouse picElection year dynamics, conservative Republican super majorities and the non-budget nature of the “short” session create the context for all issues facing the Indiana General Assembly in 2016. In economic development, the only issues to see much traction are adding LGBT civil rights protections to the Indiana Code and a short-term fix for the state’s roads and highways with an emphasis on local funding. Other issues will arise, but are unlikely to gain much attention.

Last spring’s rancorous debate over the Religious Freedom Restoration Act (RFRA) damaged Indiana’s brand in the international marketplace for jobs and investment. It led to an economic boycott of Indiana, a viral trashing of our state’s reputation in the international media and a black eye for our state’s political leadership. Moreover, the enduring stigma attached to Indiana as a discriminatory and unwelcoming place, especially among a Millenial generation that represents our future workforce, endangers our prosperity. That is why the Indiana Chamber has made adding protections for the LGBT community in state law a priority for the upcoming session.

New legislation will start in the Senate, where Sen. Travis Holdman (R-Markle) has drafted a bill that attempts to strike a balance between the religious and LGBT communities. The bill, as it stands, will probably not make either of those constituencies happy. The synopsis prohibits discrimination based on sexual orientation or gender identity while also providing protection for religious liberty and conscience. Additionally, it also preempts local civil rights ordinances that conflict with the state civil rights law. Look for an interesting debate as the session progresses.

In the area of transportation infrastructure, the General Assembly likely will take only baby steps to address an acknowledged nearly $1 billion annual funding gap between current revenues and maintenance needs. Legislative leadership seems content to wait until 2017 before pursuing any significant changes to the way Indiana funds its roads, bridges and highways. Nevertheless, armed with the results of a major road funding study by the Indiana Department of Transportation (INDOT) presented over the summer, all legislators will be able to evaluate proposed solutions in 2016 – it is just unlikely that they will move on them, especially any tax or fee increases. (The INDOT study examined existing fuel excise taxes, their future revenue potential and alternative funding mechanisms and revenue streams, such as vehicle miles traveled [VMT] or tolling.)

The legislation to watch is HB 1001, which will contain a number of reforms and potential funding mechanisms based upon the initial data from the INDOT study. The Indiana Chamber collaborated with key legislators in crafting HB 1001, which can be likened to a block of stone delivered to a sculptor’s studio: It will be an array of many options that will be chipped away at during the legislative session, hopefully into something recognizable (and helpful) in the end.

The condition of our infrastructure has already become highly politicized with partisan accusations and dueling proposals from Gov. Pence, House Democrats and the Republican majority caucuses, but nevertheless we expect several issues to be examined in sobering detail: gasoline and diesel fuel excise tax increases; fees for electric or alternative-fuel vehicles; repurposing the 7% sales tax on gasoline for the state’s highway fund; and a discussion of indexing fuel taxes for inflation, among other proposals.

Given the controversial nature of these topics and a near allergic reaction by politicians to tax increases in an election year, we anticipate it will be a very contentious and interesting session.

Chamber Board Votes to Support Expansion of State’s Civil Rights Law

?????????????????????????????????????????The Indiana Chamber of Commerce Board of Directors voted overwhelmingly at its annual fall meeting Wednesday to support expanding the state’s civil rights law to include protection for sexual orientation and gender identity.

The Indiana Chamber Board of Directors is comprised of more than 100 top business executives and civic leaders from throughout the state.

“We believe this expansion is a necessary action for the General Assembly to take,” says Indiana Chamber President and CEO Kevin Brinegar. “After the negative perception of our state generated by the Religious Freedom Restoration Act in the spring, we need to get this right in order to secure the reputation of Indiana as a hospitable and welcoming place.

“The time has come for Indiana to expand protections against potential discrimination. This action will increase the state’s future business competitiveness in the recruitment, attraction and retention of talent, as well as enhance respect for all employers and employees. We encourage our state leaders to work together to take this next critical step.”

The Indiana Chamber’s annual fall board meeting is where the organization’s public policy positions (formed by members serving on various policy committees) for the upcoming sessions of the General Assembly and Congress are discussed and acted upon.

Chamber Supports Amendment to RFRA Law

Indiana Chamber of Commerce President and CEO Kevin Brinegar reacts to the proposed clarification to the Religious Freedom Restoration Act (RFRA):

“Our state has suffered tremendously the past week. It was absolutely essential to clarify and affirm that Indiana’s RFRA law does not permit discrimination against any person or group of people. The legislative amendment spells out that Indiana will not permit discrimination based on sexual orientation or gender identity. That’s what businesses and individuals from around the state, country and world needed to hear.

“We believe this effort begins to help re-establish Indiana’s identity as a welcoming place and will go a long way toward reversing the tide of negative sentiments that has threatened our state’s economy.

“We encourage the General Assembly to pass this legislation in a bipartisan fashion today to show the nation that Indiana is united in sending the message that our state is a hospitable one which does not discriminate.”​