INDIANAPOLIS – Gov. Eric Holcomb delivered a taped State of the State address Tuesday night that recalled the thousands of Hoosiers who have died from COVID-19 and looked to how the state can accelerate out of the pandemic.
“It's impossible to calculate the far-reaching ripple effect of the personal and community loss of lives and livelihoods, but it is reason for us all to pause in a moment of silence – in prayer, if so inclined – for each and every one of these beloved souls,” he said of the 9,092 deaths.
He also thanked front-line health care workers and law enforcement for their service.
“Through it all, Hoosiers have risen to meet these unprecedented challenges, realizing much more work is to be done in this historic moment of opportunity,” Holcomb said. “Ladies and gentlemen, because of you, the state of our state is resilient and growing. Our foundation has held strong.”
One key part of the future would be a Next Level Regional Recovery program – akin to the Regional Cities program from 2015 – in which regions would collaborate to attract, retain and develop talent. But its criteria would have a nod to public health.
“I frequently talk about our collective goal to make Indiana a great place to live, work, play, study, and stay,” he said.
The Holcomb administration is working with the Indiana Economic Development Corp. now to establish criteria for the program but won't know how much money the state will invest until later this year. The program wouldn't be launched until after the end of fiscal year 2021 in June.
“Gov. Holcomb did a great job highlighting the challenges and impact Indiana has faced because of the COVID-19 health crisis and the opportunities we have moving forward,” House Speaker Todd Huston said. “His steady and strong leadership has been critical over the past 10 months and Indiana has benefited from it.
But House Democratic Leader Phil GiaQuinta of Fort Wayne said Holcomb is throwing cash at pet projects instead of making critical investments in human infrastructure.
“There seems to be a bigger emphasis on passing the ninth straight balanced budget – which we are constitutionally required to do – than on helping Hoosiers who are struggling now,” he said.
Holcomb started the 29-minute speech by acknowledging that he was not in the grand Indiana House of Representatives as usual – partly due to COVID and also security concerns – but instead in a studio.
“We are here, and not there, because we are living in a time when practicing 'safety first' has never been more important,” he said. “So much of our daily lives this past year has been different.”
He also spent time focusing on Indiana's strong fiscal situation – from a $2 billion reserve, AAA credit rating and plan to increase K-12 funding.
Holcomb pitched a $377 million boost to K-12 funding over the next two years. And he also seemed to give a warning to House Republicans looking to expand the state's voucher program for private education.
“Parents not only deserve to have options about where they send their child to be educated – after all, they pay for it – but at the same time, those options shouldn't come at the expense of the public school system, which educates 90% of Hoosier children,” Holcomb said.
One thing missing was a definitive plan to increase teacher pay. It is something Holcomb has said for two years he would address. But while his proposed budget calls for a modest increase in tuition support there is no large infusion that would help bring Indiana teacher compensation in line with the rest of the Midwest.
“The Teacher Compensation Commission Report identified 37 different state and local ideas to reduce costs and increase revenues for our public schools, and we should examine them closely to put more funds into teachers' pockets,” he said.
“When, not 'if' – when we do this, we will be one of the best in the Midwest for teacher pay, and we'll be better able to attract and retain teacher talent, including attracting more minority candidates.”
But GiaQuinta said this is the third State of State in a row that he has promised a raise is on the way.
“Hoosier educators are tired of empty promises,” he said.