INDIANAPOLIS (AP) — Gov. Eric Holcomb asserted Thursday that he'll be in the middle of the Legislature's potentially contentious debate over adopting a state hate crimes law.
The Republican governor told reporters just before state lawmakers gathered in the Statehouse to start their 2019 session that he was hopeful a bill would pass after conservatives blocked similar proposals in recent years.
When asked how active he would be in lobbying the GOP-dominated Legislature for the bill, Holcomb replied "uber."
Indiana is one of just five states without laws specifically against crimes fueled by biases regarding race, religion and sexual orientation.
Holcomb repeated his stance that adopting a law is "the right thing to do," but emphasized the situation was hurting Indiana's attempts to recruit businesses to the state.
"There's no reason why we can't be on the same list as our competitors like Florida and Tennessee and Virginia and Texas," he said. "We need to get on the right list and off the list that's holding us potentially back."
Repeated efforts for an Indiana law have failed amid fierce opposition from conservatives who maintain it would unfairly create specially protected classes of victims and wrongly restrict free speech.
Hate crime laws in other states vary to some degree but generally allow for stiffer sentences to be given to people who are convicted of crimes motivated by hatred or bias. Only Indiana, Georgia, South Carolina, Wyoming and Arkansas do not.
A key question in the Indiana debate will be whether an Indiana law should include sexual orientation and gender identity. Democrats strongly support such provisions, but the lopsided Republican majorities — 67-33 in the House and 40-10 in the Senate — mean social conservatives could again derail the bill.
Republican House Speaker Brian Bosma said he expected a few weeks could pass before legislative committees are ready to take action on the issue. But he makes similar economic arguments to Holcomb for adopting a hate crimes law.
"Employers are asking about this issue now," Bosma said. "They weren't two years ago or three years ago as they decide where to locate their employees."
Bosma has warned a drawn-out debate could lead to Indiana facing national derision as it did over the 2015 religious objections law that critics widely panned as a sanctioning of discrimination against the LGBT community and resulted in the state facing boycott threats.
Holcomb is taking a stronger stance after doing little public lobbying in seeking a hate crimes law during his first two years in office — and is calling for a law that includes sexual orientation and gender identity as the state employee anti-harassment policy has done under Holcomb and his Republican predecessors Mitch Daniels and Mike Pence.
"Nothing could be easier than getting this passed and signed into law, just like the employment policy that I have and have had in this executive branch since 2005," he said.