INDIANAPOLIS — When Kevin Brinegar began his legislative work, bills were copied with handouts, conference committee meetings were held in hotel rooms or bars, and lawmakers threw rubber bands and held up signs during boring discussions.
It was about 40 years ago. Now, Brinegar will step down as president and CEO of the Indiana Chamber of Commerce in January 2024 after nearly 30 years with the organization.
Since he started working at the Indiana Statehouse with the Legislative Services Agency, the legislature has become more transparent and technologically advanced, he said. While earning his master’s degree in business administration from Indiana University-Purdue University in Indianapolis, Brinegar worked for the Senate. While at the Statehouse, he used an adding machine that still sits on his Indiana House desk today.
These jobs built a love for tax and tax policy and government for Brinegar. When he graduated from IUPUI, he wanted to find a way to represent businesses and explore his interests.
“I wanted to see if I could find something where I could, you know, continue to use my knowledge of state governments and the relationships I’ve built and the understanding,” Brinegar said. “But you know, was there a way to do it in a commercial setting or on behalf of the business community?”
He had met the Indiana House tax and tax policy lobbyist at the time in the halls of the Statehouse and learned that he would be leaving. Brinegar accepted the job and worked his way up to president and CEO in 2002.
“It was really awesome, like I’ve said in other media reports,” Brinegar said. “A perfect job for me because I can continue to pursue my passion for public policy and make a difference, you know, for the State of Indiana and the people of Indiana and the businesses that are our members. “
The date of his retirement was chosen early to allow the House to form a search committee for the new Speaker and for Brinegar to be there to train his replacement.
Thirty years of Chamber
The Indiana Chamber of Commerce has 25,000 members and investors from 92 counties, according to Brinegar. The group is a major player in legislation due to the breadth of its membership.
Brinegar spent most of his time in the House supporting Republican politicians and lawmakers, especially when they advocated for corporate tax cuts.
Overall, Andy Downs, director of the Mike Downs Center for Indiana Politics at Purdue University in Fort Wayne, said the Indiana Chamber generally gets what it wants.
“I think if you look at the overall score sheet, even though there may have been sessions where the House did better than other sessions, overall, easily they can say, ‘we have a winning record,'” Downs said.
The Republican supermajority and support from former governors Mitch Daniels and Mike Pence and particularly current governor Eric Holcomb helped sustain the group, Downs said. Holcomb’s focus on workforce development and economic issues over social issues has benefited the group, he said.
“If you go back any further, even when the Democrats sometimes had control of the House of Representatives, it was usually pretty tight control, so there had to be a trade-off between the Ds and the Rs,” Downs said. “Also, there are a lot of Ds who understand that the economy has to move for the state to do well.”
There are a few instances where the House has come up against well-researched legislation. In the 2022 legislative session, the House opposed legislation that would have banned workplace vaccination mandates.
The House position on vaccine legislation was that companies should be able to impose vaccine mandates but not be required to. Brinegar and his colleagues worked to remove the part of the bill that required employers to pay for testing unvaccinated employees.
“Ultimately, that’s the direction Senator Messmer went in, and we’re very grateful to him and his colleagues for pushing him in that direction,” Brinegar said.
Downs cited the House’s stance against Governor Mike Pence’s Religious Freedom Restoration Act, or RFRA, as an example of how the House has evolved its policy. The House was against the legislation, seen by many as discriminatory and likely to drive businesses away from the state.
“The changes to the original legislation were a great example of a coalition of organizations coming together that no one would normally have assembled,” Downs said. “The Chamber of Commerce was there with some civil rights organizations and LGBTQ organizations. That’s not where they normally exist.
Downs spoke specifically about Brinegar’s willingness to work with different people to change the legislation.
“He, as the head of the organization, was willing to go out and form some of these weird partnerships, but ultimately it was about businesses,” Downs said.
The House also repeatedly argued for an increase in the state cigarette tax, a goal that was never fully achieved.
Brinegar ran the 400-meter track in high school, where his coach told him to “run the full strip” across the finish line. He plans to apply that advice to the rest of his time in the House.
“That’s exactly what I intend to do and what I promised my staff, my board, my executive committee,” Brinegar said. “Towards the end, we will continue to work hard and do everything I can to put this Chamber in a great position to move forward.”
In this final step, the Chamber will expand its Institute for Workforce Excellence, in particular by creating a Talent Resource Navigator that will help workplaces meet everyday challenges and Hoosiers to find training programs and funding to help find jobs.
In retirement, Brinegar doesn’t necessarily plan to slow down. He plans to teach an IUPUI class to help business students see the benefits of government and help students who may work in government understand the business perspective.
“My working title is ‘The Intersection of Business and Government’ or ‘Why Business Hates Government So Much,” Brinegar said. “I can drop that last part but, in trying to show how government works, show future bureaucrats the business perspective.”
As a lifelong Pacers fan, he wants to find a way to spend more time at Gainbridge Fieldhouse by potentially working with the team or Indiana Sports Corp.
He also wants to play more golf, be with his family, and spend some more time throwing a tennis ball for his two Labrador Retrievers.