One recurring complaint from RFRA supporters during last year’s firestorm was that “outside agitators” whipped up the controversy on social media. So it was ironic to see the parade of out-of-state witnesses and professional activists at this week’s hearings on expanding state civil rights laws to include LGBT Hoosiers.
Lawmakers listened to hours of dire predictions and exaggerated arguments from outsiders, when the impact of their actions is much closer to home: Competitiveness for local employers. Consequences for the local economy. Local evidence, right here in Indianapolis, that anti-discrimination protection doesn’t mean religious persecution.
The committee didn’t hear from representatives of respected Hoosier employers like Cummins, former Angie’s List CEO Bill Oesterle, or the Indy Chamber’s own Michael Huber. But whether part of the official record or not, their message is clear: Discrimination in any form is wrong for Indiana, and bad for business.
A costly mistake - $60M and counting:
The local fallout from RFRA was most obvious and immediate in the convention and tourism industry. Visit Indy released a study this week detailing $60M in lost convention bids where RFRA was cited as a key factor. These losses could have been much higher, but for the quick action of the General Assembly to enact the RFRA “fix” and the willingness of homegrown companies and local organizations to invest in Indy (and remind their peers of the city’s strong anti-discrimination record).
After a record-setting pace in the first quarter of 2015, the outpouring of negative national and international publicity around RFRA triggered a 43 percent drop in Indy hotel room night bookings from the same period in 2014 (an estimated 100,000 lost room nights for non-Indiana based conventions). That’s a real threat to the livelihoods of themore than 75,000 Hoosiers who work in the region’s hospitality sector.
A few steps forward:
The Senate Judiciary Committee did avoid the worst possible outcome on civil rights by rejecting SB66, the so-called ‘Super RFRA’ that would have doubled-down on divisiveness by assigning a statutory priority to certain constitutional rights.
The Corrections & Criminal Law Committee offered another hopeful signal on anti-discrimination attitudes, passingSB220 allowing tougher sentencing for “bias crimes” and including LGBT status along with race, religion, gender and other potential biases. Indy Chamber lobbyist Tim Brown noted that progress on the bill is significant as the General Assembly struggles with issues of inclusion.
The Senate also killed SB285, which would have created new burdens and liabilities for employers to verify the status of immigrant workers – also running the risk of further positioning Indiana as unwelcoming to new residents (ignoring the more critical issue for a state that lost roughly 30,000 Hoosiers to other parts of the U.S. over the last decade).
A giant leap back:
But any forward progress was negated by the actions on SB100 and SB344 in the Senate Rules Committee. By excluding gender identity and including a host of exceptions and loopholes, lawmakers chose to revisit last year’s RFRA turmoil.
Continuing the controversy ignores the damage to the local hospitality industry and the state’s broader economic challenge, our growing ‘talent gap.’ Indiana is projected to lose more than 100,000 working-age residents over the next 25 years; even the Indy region (while outperforming the rest of the state) is losing ground in population and income growth to other large metro areas.
Today’s knowledge workers and educated Millennials are among the most mobile demographics in history…and where they settle, business opportunities and investment follow. We must find ways to attract and retain talent, not create reasons to go elsewhere.
Clearly the business community is dismayed by progress to date. But from our vantage point in the Statehouse, we respect that the General Assembly is grappling with an array of politically-charged topics, amid often contradictory and confusing testimony. Many fair-minded legislators are seeking a way forward on anti-discrimination, infrastructure and other priorities.
We thank Senators David Long and Travis Holdman for putting forth SB100 and SB344 for thoughtful debate. ThoughSB344 in its current form is unacceptable to the Indy Chamber, the bill survives as a vehicle to be debated and amended. There’s hope that the process can yield a positive result, especially as elected representatives hear from more employers and constituents like you.
You can also be a part of the conversation on Twitter @IndyChamber and make your voice heard by joining Team317 and becoming a social media advocate for the Indy Chamber’s legislative agenda.