INDIANAPOLIS – Ranked among the Indiana Chamber of Commerce's legislative priorities is just what you would expect – fighting for increased workforce development funds and reducing business personal property taxes.
But there are other items that might not fit a traditional business focus – raising the age to buy cigarettes in Indiana, accelerating when the superintendent of public instruction becomes an appointed post.
And the big one – supporting a hate crimes law.
“A lot of business owners – especially small-business owners – would prefer they stick to business and economic issues. It has given the impression to some they are for big government,” said Micah Clark, executive director of the American Family Association of Indiana. “Many people are scratching their heads as to why they are going off course so much.”
But Chamber of Commerce President and CEO Kevin Brinegar bristles at the idea his organization has strayed outside its lane.
“All of these things we get involved in is because it has an economic impact and jobs connection,” he said. “The Indiana Chamber of Commerce has indeed been a driving force in making Indiana one of the best places to grow jobs and raise families and one of the best business climates in the country.”
Going back to 2012 when its Vision 2025 plan was created, the Indiana Chamber of Commerce has pushed agenda items that go beyond taxes and regulatory framework for its nearly 25,000 members.
And it has had mixed success.
Andrew Downs, head of the Mike Downs Center for Indiana Politics at Purdue University Fort Wayne, said he noticed the phenomenon when the chamber became immersed in K-12 education issues.
“The overall logic is one that is sound – a good workforce is necessary for prosperity and growth, therefore the chamber should care about education,” he said.
The chamber has pushed for an appointed education chief for years. It is finally set to happen in 2025, but the chamber wants lawmakers to move that date up to 2021.
Brinegar said businesses pay more than half of the funds that go to K-12 education, and ultimately are the end users of the product – students – so their interest in a solid education system makes sense.
He also noted the chamber has pushed for the reduction of township government and fewer elected officials in general to help reduce government spending – and as a result lower taxes paid by businesses.
Brinegar said some people have asked why the chamber is involved in social issues. But he said it has only been in reaction to problems.
The chamber, for example, stayed out of the fight over same-sex marriage. But once the state Religious Freedom Restoration Act threw Indiana into the national spotlight and threatened jobs, the chamber stepped in to support a fix.
That clash led to the chamber supporting civil protections against discrimination for gay, lesbian and transgender Hoosiers in 2016 – though it didn't pass the Republican legislature.
“It's about our outward message and image,” Brinegar said.
Hate crimes legislation falls in the same category as Indiana is one of only five states without an explicit bias crime statute. And with a lack of skilled workers, Indiana businesses need to be able to attract talent here and feel welcome, Brinegar said.
Clark, who lobbies against hate crime legislation, said he believes the chamber has more credibility on business issues.
“I think they have lost their way a little bit and it will hurt them with their traditional rank-and-file members,” he said.
Another topic the chamber has targeted is reducing Indiana's smoking rate. Last year the chamber supported raising the legal smoking age from 18 to 21. The chamber continues to back that measure as well as a significant increase in the cigarette tax.
Brinegar said Indiana companies lose $6.2 billion every year due to smoking-related health problems. More than half that is in health care costs while the rest is from absenteeism and lost productivity.
That directly affects employers' bottom line, he said. That money could instead be going to training, pay, benefits and new equipment.
Another goal recently added to the Chamber's Vision 2025 plan for Hoosier prosperity is to reduce opioid-related deaths by 25 percent.
A statewide board of directors that consists of more than 100 people who are presidents, CEOs and high-level executives from organizations across the state choose the entity's agenda items.
Members serve on committees that research key topics and define public policy positions for adoption by the executive committee and entire board each fall. These positions are used by the Indiana Chamber's advocacy team to initiate and evaluate legislation at the Indiana Statehouse and in Congress.
That's a bit different from another organization representing 13,000 independent businesses in the state.
Barbara Quandt Underwood, state director for the National Federation of Independent Business, said the group sends out a ballot every year on key issues, including detailed information on the arguments for and against an issue.
At least 70 percent have to agree for the organization to take an official stance.
“We have members directly vote their interests,” she said.
The NFIB stays out of social issues, she said, and members have not expressed interest in reversing that. This year's ballot, for example, focuses on an equal pay law, paid family leave and retirement accounts. Results are expected to be tabulated for the start of session in January.
Brinegar said with so many members it's impossible to please everyone and some individual members might disagree with certain positions. But he said membership has remained steady.
Several lawmakers declined to be interviewed as the chamber is still a formidable political ally. The group's political action committee gave more than $353,000 to candidates this year.
Downs said it's clear the chamber is still primarily focused on economic and regulatory issues like taxes. But he noted a trend nationwide on quality of place that all states are paying attention to.
“As soon as you branch out you are going to upset some of your membership,” he said. “Getting a tax break is always an easier sell than smoking or hate crimes.”