Indiana governor touts COVID-19 recovery in State of State

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INDIANAPOLIS (AP) — Gov. Eric Holcomb touted Indiana as rebounding from the COVID-19 pandemic and called during the annual State of the State speech Tuesday night for the Legislature to support a new regional development program to spark that recovery.

Holcomb pre-recorded the speech earlier Tuesday before it was broadcast on television and online, rather than before the typical joint session of the General Assembly. He chose the virtual option in light of coronavirus precautions and security concerns over possible protests across the country related to President-elect Joe Biden’s inauguration on Wednesday.

Holcomb focused much of his nearly half-hour speech on state initiatives responding the COVID-19 pandemic. He paused for about 10 seconds marking a moment of silence for the more than 9,000 Indiana residents who’ve died from the illness over the past 10 months, saying “It’s impossible to calculate the far-reaching ripple effect of the personal and community loss of lives and livelihoods.”

The Republican governor, who was elected to a second term by a wide margin in November, strove to cast the state as in the midst of a strong recovery, pointing to state government’s top-level AAA credit rating and some $2 billion in cash reserves as allowing more aggressive action than many other states.

“Coming off 2020, I’m convinced 2021 can be the best ever,” Holcomb said. “So the central question before us all is, how can we seize this day?”

In a new initiative, Holcomb called for creation of a Next Level Regional Recovery program aimed at improving quality of place and economic development efforts among groups of cities and counties around the state.

It resembles the Regional Cities Initiative that then-Gov. Mike Pence pushed for in 2015 and awarded $42 million grants toward three regional plans. Supporters lauded its success, but Holcomb and leaders of the Republican-dominate Legislature didn’t pursue more money for it in the two-year state budget adopted in 2019.

“We are just at the beginning of developing this initiative and will work with members of the General Assembly and our mayors, our county elected officials, economic development officials and other stakeholders, so we’re ready to rock and roll when we have the green light,” Holcomb said.

Holcomb also called on lawmakers to approve $100 million toward improving internet service in rural areas of the state and highlighted the state’s commitments to completing the Interstate 69 extension project between Indianapolis and Evansville that’s been under construction since 2011 and upgrades to the South Shore commuter rail line in northern Indiana.

Holcomb last week proposed a modest increase in school funding for the new state budget — 2% during the first year and 1% in the second year — while leaving for later discussions with legislators on taking up a report from a commission he appointed two years ago to recommend steps toward boosting the state’s lagging teacher pay.

“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,” Holcomb said.

Democrats faulted Holcomb and legislative Republicans for not taking more aggressive action on the issue that has festered since Republicans took full control of state government a decade ago.

“This is a third State of the State in a row that I’ve heard the governor make promises to Hoosier educators that an increase in pay is on the way,” said House Democratic leader Phil GiaQuinta of Fort Wayne. “I know Hoosier educators are tired of empty promises.”

Holcomb only briefly referenced the warnings about possible violent protests at state capitols across the country that prompted him to close the Indiana Statehouse until Thursday and for legislative leaders to call off all business this week. He didn’t discuss last year’s protests in Indiana and across the country against racial injustice and police brutality even while mentioning his hiring of a state equity officer and plans for all state police troopers to wear body cameras.

Senate Democratic leader Greg Taylor of Indianapolis said that Holcomb should have talked about calls from Black leaders for steps such as banning police use of chokeholds, along with ways the state’s $2 billion in reserves could help people suffering financially during the pandemic, especially those working in places such as grocery stores and nursing homes.

“Many were paid wages that they can’t even live on, they have to have several jobs to make ends meet,” Taylor said. “How does it seem fair that we’re going to still have Hoosiers after this pandemic and people in these essential jobs that can’t get paid a living wage of living wage?”

Holcomb recorded the speech earlier in the day, after previously planning to give the speech live in the Indiana House chamber before a small audience. But that plan was reconsidered following last week’s protest warnings from the FBI, said Earl Goode, Holcomb’s chief of staff.

“Out of that came the decision that the simplest thing to do then was to move to the studio, so it was a combination of both,” Goode said.

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