INDIANAPOLIS — The state's leading business organization is urging Hoosier lawmakers to take steps next year to improve the quality of Indiana's workforce and complement its commerce and tax climates that already are recognized as among the best in the nation.
The Indiana Chamber of Commerce this week announced it will press the Republican-controlled General Assembly to prioritize workforce development programs, particularly science and technology training, during the 2019 legislative session.
Specifically, the influential business interest group wants all high school students to earn at least one career-technical education credit, such as a computer science course, as a graduation requirement beginning with the class of 2023.
"We've had years of employers telling us that leaving jobs unfilled and finding qualified workers are among their biggest challenges — and it’s only becoming a more pressing issue," said Kevin Brinegar, chamber president.
"Many good efforts have been tried by the state, education institutions and businesses, but it’s not having enough of an impact."
To that end, the chamber supports revamping Indiana's workforce training programs so employers decide what students learn, while scuttling or reworking any job training services that fail to produce a meaningful return on investment.
"It's prudent that the state evaluates its existing programs," Brinegar said. "We have to pinpoint what will most help retrain workers for the current job market and how best to get the word out. There's no magic answer, but we must achieve better results."
At the same time, Brinegar explained that improving Indiana's workforce goes beyond targeted education and skills training. It must also include policies aimed at bolstering the health of Hoosier workers.
That's why the chamber is asking state lawmakers to approve a $2 per pack cigarette tax hike and to increase the minimum age for purchasing cigarettes to 21 from 18.
"Smoking is costing employers and the state more than $6 billion annually in lost productivity and health care," Brinegar said.
"Research has shown that significantly increasing what a pack of cigarettes costs and upping the legal age to smoke do yield positive results."
The chamber also is opposing efforts to legalize medicinal or recreational marijuana in Indiana, since the drug is not recognized by the U.S. Food and Drug Administration as a legitimate medical treatment and studies show marijuana negatively impacts job performance.
Other top priorities for the business organization include enacting a criminal sentencing enhancement for bias-motivated crimes, supporting the development of a state energy plan, encouraging meaningful township government reform and promoting investment in Indiana's water infrastructure.
"Water has obvious health and safety implications, plus it's such an economic necessity for business operations," Brinegar said.
"A focus on regional resources, proper planning and funding are essential. The state has done its homework and has good data, so now it’s time to act."
The chamber also is seeking further reduction or elimination of the business personal property tax to encourage companies to invest in new equipment, and is calling on lawmakers to make technology innovation an integral part of the state's identity.
"This is a growing sector of our economy and we need to do everything we can to help these businesses grow and thrive," Brinegar said.
Republican legislative leaders said they support many components of the chamber's agenda, including education and workforce development refinements, reducing smoking rates, opposing legal marijuana and enacting a bias crime statute.
However, House Speaker Brian Bosma, R-Indianapolis, cautioned that, as always, it will be a challenge to maintain majority support in the Legislature as the business group's broad concepts get hammered into specific policy proposals.
The General Assembly convenes Jan. 3 for a four-month session where lawmakers also will have to craft a plan to spend some $33 billion in Indiana's new two-year state budget.