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Column: Business wields growing clout in state politics

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INDIANAPOLIS — High school students in Indiana have been taught for decades that there are branches to state government – the executive, the legislative and the judicial.

Now, it appears that there is a fourth — the Indiana Chamber of Commerce.

Not officially, of course. But it’s hard not to see the chamber’s immense influence at almost every point in state government these days.

Hoosiers saw the chamber’s power at its most raw and obvious in the last two legislative sessions, when the chamber and the lawmakers it supports — almost all Republican — pushed through controversial right-to-work legislation that prompted Democrats in the Indiana House of Representatives to stage walkouts and organized labor to bring protestors to the Statehouse by the busload.

At the end of that bare-knuckle brawl, labor unions had their backs broken and the Indiana Chamber of Commerce was in a position of unquestioned supremacy.

Perhaps because the chamber’s ascendency now is assured, the organization’s attempts to shape state policy are more subtle. But the chamber’s hidden-hand touch still can be seen — and felt — in many issues confronting state government.

Gov. Mike Pence, for example, has made the centerpiece of his legislative package a plan to reduce personal income taxes by 10 percent.

Legislative leaders — all of whom are Republicans, like Pence — have been lukewarm to the governor’s plan. Quietly, they say that tax cuts might be a good idea that would spur job creation, but they should be corporate income tax cuts.

Corporate income tax cuts, of course, would suit the Chamber of Commerce just fine.

Then there was the display of petulance from House Speaker Brian Bosma, R-Indianapolis. Bosma grew testy when reporters asked him if the General Assembly was going to take up the issue of a constitutional ban on same-sex marriage.

This was the same Bosma who nine years ago declared the ban the most important issue before the legislature.

That was then.

Now, Bosma responded by saying he hadn’t made up his mind and then adding, snappishly:

“Anybody have a real question, an important question?”

Some things have changed in the nine years since Bosma championed the ban. A recent independent poll showed that Hoosiers are evenly split on allowing same-sex unions and a majority of the state’s residents don’t want the ban enshrined in the state’s constitution.

But the numbers were trending that way a decade ago, which is why social conservatives were desperate to move quickly on the issue. They knew that time was not on their side and that changing demographics were going to make it increasingly harder for them to get a ban through.

Correspondingly, advocates for same-sex unions knew that time was on their side and thus played a delaying game.

(Disclosure: As the executive director of what was then the Indiana Civil Liberties Union a decade ago, I was one of the people helping to formulate that delaying strategy.)

What’s changed is that the corporate community — the chamber’s core constituency — has decided that a constitutional ban on same-sex unions would make it harder for businesses to recruit talented people and also might create barriers to commerce.

And the Chamber of Commerce’s philosophy is that what is good for business is what’s best for Indiana.

It’s also possible to see the chamber’s forceful touch in many other ways — not the least of which is in the area of education.

The reasoning behind having government assume responsibility for educating young people was Jeffersonian in nature. Our commitment to universal public education was designed to prepare people for the responsibilities of citizenship and self-government.

Now, though, the focus in Indiana on education at every level — primary, secondary and college — is on making schools, colleges and universities provide job, career and professional training for the state’s students. Education’s job now is to serve business’s need for well-trained workers.

That might not be a bad thing, but it is different reason than the one that prompted government to take on the task of educating everyone in the first place.

Needless to say, this new focus also serves the chamber’s agenda.

President Calvin Coolidge once famously said, “The business of America is business.”

Hoosiers now, at the urging of the Indiana Chamber of Commerce, are working to make Coolidge’s words the state’s mission statement.

John Krull is director of Franklin College’s Pulliam School of Journalism, host of “No Limits” WFYI 90.1 FM Indianapolis and executive editor of, a news website powered by Franklin College journalism students.

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