Indiana’s governor expresses the spending plan in his annual speech

INDIANAPOLIS (AP) — Indiana Gov. Eric Holcomb on Tuesday urged skeptical lawmakers to support funding for several large-scale spending plans, arguing that the state needs to take action on multiple fronts.

Holcomb used the annual state-of-the-state address to members of the General Assembly, dominated by his Republican compatriots, to seek support for his proposals that would significantly increase funding for schools and public health programs. However, some senior Republican lawmakers are concerned about the cost of these plans amid an expected slowdown in state tax revenue growth.

Holcomb told lawmakers the state has the “financial resources” to pay for the proposals and yet has an annual budget surplus.

“The work we’ve done together has led us to this position of strength, which challenges us to invest in what I believe to be needs and to address our competitive advantages and disadvantages head-on,” Holcomb said in his prepared speech .

Drafting a new two-year state budget will be the main focus of the legislative session, which began on Monday and is expected to last until the end of April. Holcomb last week proposed a 6% increase in K-12 funding for the next school year, which would be the largest increase in more than a decade.

The governor’s proposal also included nearly $350 million over the next two years for public health programs and $500 million for a new round of regional economic development grants. Among other important items in Holcomb’s plan are a $160 million proposal for state employee pay increases and a separate $36 million that would go towards increasing state police officers’ starting annual salaries by 30% to $70,000.

Holcomb also proposed eliminating fees for textbooks and other educational materials for all public school students, directing another $120 million to local schools to expand the current program, which covers such fees for children from low-income families.

Indiana is one of only seven states that still allows textbook fees, what Holcomb called a “disguised tax” of perhaps hundreds of dollars a year on families in violation of the state constitution’s promise of tuition-free education.

Democrats and many education advocates have long criticized schoolbook fees as an unfair additional cost to families.

“From eliminating textbook fees to making historic public health investments, Democrats and Gov. Holcomb are on the same page, and I’m pleased to see support for the ideas we’ve championed for years,” said Phil GiaQuinta, chairman of the Democrats in the House of Representatives, last week. “But I’m afraid the real question is whether the Republicans in the Statehouse are as forward-thinking as the Democrats in the Statehouse and the governor.”

Republican lawmakers have been reluctant to support Holcomb’s bid for significant increases in public health funding, questioning how quickly county health officials could ramp up programs to effectively spend the money.

Holcomb argued that more public health funding is needed to improve Indiana’s poor national rankings on areas like obesity, smoking and life expectancy, calling it “a pattern we need to reverse.” He said it will require “new actions to produce new results”.

The governor’s plan is to allocate $100 million in the first year of the budget and $200 million in the second year to increase the Indiana County Department of Health’s funding from its current 45th place to the national average. The state now directs about $7 million a year to county health departments, which is now funded primarily through local taxes.

“Almost all of these dollars will be used locally, in your districts, where our fellow Hoosiers need them, tailored to the unique circumstances of each community partner,” Holcomb told lawmakers.

A commission appointed by Holcomb recommended a $240 million annual increase to bring county public health department funding to the national average, but the governor said it would take time to “build the structure” for expanded health programs.

Holcomb’s speech also touted the progress of several major construction projects across the state. These include the planned completion next year of the final northern section of the Interstate 69 extension between Evansville and Indianapolis, which construction began in 2008, and work to expand the South Shore commuter rail line in northwestern Indiana, which runs to Chicago.

The governor announced the award of a $29.5 million grant to local groups developing a 62-mile recreational trail through five southern Indiana counties. The trail, which follows an abandoned railroad track formerly used by the Monon Railroad between New Albany near Louisville, Kentucky, and the Lawrence County town of Mitchell, will be the state’s longest continuous trail, Holcomb said.

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