INDIANAPOLIS — The state's most powerful business organization is asking Indiana lawmakers to focus on reducing the number of Hoosier smokers, in addition to addressing traditional corporate concerns, during the legislative session that begins Jan. 3.
The Indiana Chamber of Commerce last week announced that it wants the minimum age to purchase and smoke cigarettes increased to 21, from 18, and for businesses to be allowed to deny employment to otherwise qualified applicants solely because they smoke.
Caryl Auslander, the chamber's vice president of education and workforce development, said Indiana has one of the highest smoking rates in the country, and it's harming the bottom line of both the state and its businesses.
"Smoking causes $3.1 billion in productivity losses in our state alone, and nearly $3 billion in annual health care costs," she said.
In prior years, the chamber has endorsed a $1 per pack cigarette tax increase to discourage smoking.
It's not pushing that idea for 2018, since tax matters typically only are debated by the Legislature in odd-numbered years when the two-year state budget is crafted.
House Speaker Brian Bosma, R-Indianapolis, suggested the chamber will have a tough enough fight trying to convince the Republican House and Senate supermajorities that increasing the smoking age is the right policy.
"I have a bit of difficulty telling somebody that they can go to Iraq and fight for freedom, but they can't buy a pack of cigarettes," Bosma said. "I get that we do something different with alcohol in that regard — we'll see."
Education and workforce
Beyond smoking, the chamber primarily is focused on advancing policies it believes will ensure Indiana businesses, today and in the future, have a plentiful number of potential employees with the training and skills companies require.
Auslander said that's one reason why the organization is backing Republican Gov. Eric Holcomb's plan to align Indiana's elementary, high school and post-secondary education programs to meet specific workforce goals of Hoosier companies.
"The chamber supports increased coordination between the state's education and career-related entities, with overall efforts inclusive of the business community's needs," she said.
"Such a process will result in more Hoosiers being educated, trained and subsequently employed in higher wage, in-demand jobs."
In addition, the chamber wants lawmakers to add science, technology, engineering and mathematics (STEM) courses to the school curriculum, and require all students to complete a computer science course to graduate from high school.
"As we increase the number of jobs in the tech sector, it becomes even more important to have required STEM offerings in high school, specifically computer science," Auslander said. "This will better prepare students for in-demand jobs and help to improve the skills gap."
Bosma said he agrees with the chamber that STEM education is key for the state's future, though he remains a "maybe" on adding computer science as a high school graduation requirement.
"We have to require computer science in some form," Bosma said. "I'm not thinking one class is enough, personally. I think it needs to be injected throughout the curriculum, kindergarten through 12th grade."
Another chamber workforce priority is enacting a "workshare" program, where companies avoid layoffs by instead reducing employee hours during an economic downturn and those workers receive a partial unemployment benefit while maintaining their jobs.
"Our economy is doing well right now, but it's better to prepare for a downturn now than to be left scrambling when that inevitably happens," Auslander said.
"This has been on our list for the last several years. It hasn't even been voted on in committee due to factors that defy the common-sense nature of this policy."
Bosma attributed the hold up to the administration of Republican former Gov. Mike Pence which he said lobbied against the measure.
Other chamber priorities
Auslander indicated that eliminating or reducing township government remains a chamber goal, even though state lawmakers have shown little appetite for local government reform in recent years.
"Taxpayer money is being wasted versus the services that are being delivered (by townships), and there are too many instances of fiscal mismanagement across the state," she said.
Another continuing chamber priority is developing a statewide water plan to ensure Indiana has sufficient resources to meet its water needs, particularly for manufacturing. It also favors creating a statewide energy plan.
On taxes, the chamber supports the governor's call to treat business computer software as a service that's not subject to sales tax. It additionally wants the state's business personal property tax eliminated.
Finally, the chamber is calling on lawmakers to enact civil rights protections for lesbian, gay, bisexual and transgender Hoosiers, though Auslander acknowledged there probably is insufficient support in the General Assembly to actually do so.