INDIANAPOLIS — The Indiana Chamber of Commerce unveiled its legislative priorities for the 2021 session, holding fast to old priorities and pushing new protections for businesses in the wake of COVID-19 infections.
The chamber, which releases its priorities every year, encouraged pro-business priorities and asked that the incoming 2021 state legislators enact legal protections against COVID-related lawsuits.
“We can’t have employers, schools and health care facilities being sued and bombarded with lawsuits because someone … is claiming that they caught (COVID there),” Kevin Brinegar, the chamber’s president and CEO, said in Monday’s meeting via Zoom. “We anticipate that this will be in place at the federal level, but we need these protections in place at the state level.”
Senate Pro Tem Rodric Bray, R-Martinsville, said the Legislature would avoid penalizing businesses with higher unemployment trust fund contributions. The state still has $600 million in CARES Act money from the federal government it may use to cover that gap instead and pay back federal loans used to cover unemployment benefits for Hoosiers.
“I think the Legislature’s responsibility is trying to set an environment where the economy can begin to bounce back,” Bray said. “It’s pretty unpalatable, in my opinion, to try to have companies start to take on more expenses or responsibilities when they’re trying to get themselves out of this very, very challenging 2020.”
From across the aisle, House Minority Leader Rep. Phil GiaQuinta voiced his agreement but said he still wanted to have a focus on school funding.
“I just want to make sure this bill or any other bill is properly vetted,” GiaQuinta, D-Fort Wayne, said.
While caucus leaders from both sides of the aisle seemed to agree on the need to protect businesses, details were sparse. No one discussed whether the protection would extend to nursing homes, where 55% of Indiana’s COVID-19 deaths have occurred, or which types of schools would be protected.
Indiana ranks in the top third of the nation in terms of nursing home deaths, according to the senior advocacy group AARP.
Last year, the chamber successfully pushed to increase the minimum purchase age for tobacco and vaping products to 21 but didn’t get an accompanying tax increase. That tax increase again made their list of top priorities as a way to potentially improve the overall health of Hoosiers.
“We know that we now have the fourth-highest smoking rate of any state in the country,” Brinegar said. “And that needs to change.”
Huston said the Republican House Caucus hadn’t discussed the option but that, if the tax worked as designed, its funding would dwindle over time because it would discourage Hoosiers to smoke.
“The day you implement the new tax rate is the most amount of money you’re going to collect if the policy is successful,” Huston said.
The chamber has long opposed any medicinal or recreational legalization of marijuana, saying it could contribute to absenteeism, higher insurance rates and auto accidents.
But Sen. Greg Taylor, the new Senate minority leader, pointed to legalizing medical marijuana as a potential boon for the state’s depleted coffers.
“Not only are we losing money on the revenue side, but we’re paying for people to be in jail because they have a small amount of marijuana,” Taylor said. “We could talk about a cigarette tax, but we need to talk about the surrounding states and what they’ve done (with marijuana legalization).”
Both Illinois and Michigan have legalized recreational marijuana and Ohio has legalized marijuana for medicinal use.
Other priorities included establishing a workshare program that would allow employers to decrease employee hours during economic downturns while retaining the employees and continuing to fund their benefits. Those employees could apply for partial reimbursement of their salaries through unemployment though they still have an employer.
Additionally, the chamber advocated for creating incentives to attract remote workers, a pandemic trend expected to continue, and focus on the digital economy by improving broadband access.