INDIANAPOLIS – Gov. Eric Holcomb proposed a budgetary maneuver in Tuesday's State of the State speech to free up money for teacher pay in 2021 – a down payment of sorts on the next budget cycle as teachers continue to pressure lawmakers to increase their lagging salaries.
There is nothing stopping lawmakers from making the move now except conventional wisdom that fiscal issues are handled during the long session in odd-numbered years.
Holcomb specifically recommended that the state pay $250 million next year from the state surplus toward teacher retirement funds, which in turn would free up about $50 million annually the next several years for teacher pay.
Meanwhile, the Teacher Compensation Commission will continue to work on a sustainable plan to make teacher pay competitive with other Midwestern states. That plan is due in the spring.
“My mother was a teacher and I saw how hard she worked,” Holcomb said. “Teaching, to her, was not a job, but a calling. I'd go so far as to say a gift.”
He also noted that the Legislature acted in 2019 to pass a new two-year state budget – including a modest K-12 funding increase.
“All of our school corporations have finalized their locally-bargained contracts and more Indiana school districts have raised teacher salaries this year than in any other year in recent history,” Holcomb said.
Initial data from the Education Employment Relations Board shows 99% of school corporations have raised teacher salaries this year. About 60% of those school corporations are providing increases equal to or larger than their raises last year. Last year's average salary increase was $1,299.
The governor's office also said 62,595 out of 63,006 Indiana teachers, representing 99% of traditional public school teachers, work in one of the 301 public school corporations that are increasing teacher pay this year.
But Democrats said Holcomb's proposal can be put into place now for immediate increases.
Senate Democratic Leader Tim Lanane said protesting budget moves during a short session is just smoke and mirrors and asking teachers to wait longer for action.
“It's like saying 'I'll gladly pay you Tuesday for a hamburger today. No. Pay me now,'” he said.
Republicans said Holcomb is simply putting out an idea to be vetted over the summer.
House Speaker Brian Bosma said the best reason to wait is sound fiscal discipline, noting the economy will turn downward and the state surplus needs to be able to weather the storm.
Overall, Bosma said Holcomb “just knocked it out of the ballpark” with his fourth State of the State speech.
But House Democratic Leader Phil GiaQuinta of Fort Wayne said he is disappointed he didn't hear anything from the governor on capping drug prices; redistricting reform or expanding prekindergarten options.
Holcomb did urge the Legislature to join 21 states that have passed a hands-free device driving law. This means you can still use your phone but through Bluetooth or speaker options – not holding it while driving.
“Distracted driving increases the risk of a crash by more than 31/2 times and is a leading killer of teenagers in America,” he said. “This is unacceptable and avoidable.”
He introduced Tina and Lorin Smith of Indianapolis, who were riding motorcycles in a fundraising event and pulled off the road to check their mileage. They were sideswiped by a minivan whose driver was looking at her leg.
Tina and Lorin each lost a leg in the accident.
“Rather than ask, 'Why me?' they asked themselves how they could be part of a solution, and they've become advocates for reducing distracted driving ever since,” Holcomb said.
The bill has been introduced but has not been set for a hearing. It is the one outlier between Holcomb's agenda and those of House and Senate Republicans.
Bosma said the bill has been filed in the House and he isn't sure how it will fare. He encouraged the governor to reach out personally to each member of the House and Senate roads committees to make the case for it.
“It will be a robust discussion,” he said.
The governor also took the time to boast a bit about state successes: A record number of job commitments and investment; $2.3 billion in the state savings account; and an increased number of Hoosiers with higher education degrees or credentials.
Holcomb also said the state's recidivism rate dropped 4% and the infant mortality rate is at its lowest point since 2012. In addition, the number of deaths from drug overdoses dropped nearly 13% – twice the national average decline.
“I want Indiana to become known as a state that works for all,” he said. “Where every citizen – no matter their background or age or who they love or whether they grew up here or arrived last week – has equal access and opportunity to go as far as they wish and are willing to work to get there.”
Holcomb also lauded the Indiana Department of Child Services for righting the ship – noting fewer abused and neglected children in the system, fewer returning to the system and a faster rate to permanency. Worker turnover has also dropped 18%.
But he said there is more work to do – specifically on adoptions. While the department facilitated nearly 2,500 adoptions in 2019 there are 1,400 children currently available for adoption.
So Holcomb is creating the first adoption unit within the department.
“Not only will the new unit help our most precious population find a permanent home faster, but it will also enable family case managers to focus on their primary mission of protecting children in need,” Holcomb said.