The state's leading business organization is somewhat scaling back its legislative wish list, since it's not clear how much the General Assembly can get done next year while operating under COVID-19 prevention measures.
Leaders of the Indiana Chamber of Commerce last week identified five priority items, instead of the usual 10, they hope the Republican-controlled House and Senate will approve during the four-month Indiana legislative session that begins Jan. 4.
Topping the list is legal liability protections for businesses in connection with claims relating to COVID-19 infections or the spread of the coronavirus.
"We can't have employers and schools and health care facilities being bombarded with lawsuits because someone was in their facility a week, two weeks ago, has now contracted COVID and is claiming that they caught it at that facility, when we have no idea what other places and interactions those individuals have had since that time," said Kevin Brinegar, chamber CEO.
Brinegar said COVID-19 lawsuit liability protections are a top priority nationally for the U.S. Chamber of Commerce in Washington, D.C. But he said a separate Indiana statute still is needed to deter COVID-19 lawsuits from being filed in state courts.
The second chamber priority also is health-related. Brinegar said Indiana urgently must take steps to improve the general health of Hoosiers, starting with reducing the state's nearly highest-in-the-nation smoking rate.
To that end, Brinegar said the chamber will press state lawmakers to hike Indiana's cigarette tax by $2 per pack, which he said not only will prompt Hoosiers to kick the habit but replace some of the state tax revenue lost in the early months of the pandemic.
"We know that the General Assembly is probably going to be looking for money in this session," Brinegar said. "The proposed $2 a pack increase in the cigarette tax ... would raise nearly $500 million a year in additional revenue for the state."
The third and fourth chamber priorities focus on employees — both retaining and attracting them during the COVID-19 pandemic.
Specifically, the business group wants to establish a "workshare" program that would allow Hoosiers to collect partial unemployment benefits if their employer reduces their regular work hours, so long as the employee remains available to work at the company.
At the same time, the organization wants the state to provide incentives to entice the huge number of now-remote workers based elsewhere to relocate to Indiana to help offset anticipated population and workforce declines over the next decade.
Finally, the chamber is calling on the Legislature to ensure all Hoosiers have access to high-speed broadband internet, no matter where in the state they live.
"The pandemic was unforeseen and state funds have dwindled, but Indiana is in better position than most and can take charge of how it makes its way back," Brinegar said.
State lawmakers generally advance the chamber's legislative priorities. But in recent sessions, the business group has been stymied in its efforts to hike the cigarette tax hike and establish a workshare program.
"We don’t know how long this recovery is going to take or if there will be more downturns along the way," Brinegar said. "What we do know is that if Indiana had a workshare program currently in place, federal CARES Act money would have covered all the unemployment benefits for employees on workshare through the end of the year."
Brinegar indicated the chamber also isn't backing off its long-term goals for the Hoosier State. It's just not emphasizing them as much this year to bring more attention to its top five legislative priorities.
He said the business group still supports the Legislature enacting a state energy plan and health care price transparency, maintaining Indiana's top-ranked business tax climate, strengthening school accountability measures, and eliminating township government.
The chamber also emphatically opposes legalizing either medicinal or recreational marijuana use in Indiana, Brinegar said.