Gov. Eric Holcomb’s State of the State Address, held virtually for the first time Tuesday evening, highlighted Hoosier perseverance and accomplishments while paving a path for the 2021 legislative session amid the COVID-19 pandemic.
The event was held online due to worry about COVID-19 spread and security concerns around the Indiana Statehouse after the U.S. Capitol was stormed Jan. 6.
In his discussion, Holcomb focused on workforce development, education, infrastructure, public health and government services.
Reelected to a second term in November, Holcomb shared some state successes from his first term, such as the steady decline in the state’s infant mortality rate, the reach of the “It’s Our Shot, Hoosiers” vaccination plan, and the effectiveness of the Workforce Ready and Employer Grant programs.
To continue the decline in infant mortality rates, Holcomb said he plans to make Indiana the 31st state to pass a pregnancy accommodations bill for women in the workplace. His previous efforts met resistance in the Indiana General Assembly.
Discussing the growth of the Indiana workforce, he said the state attracted 31,000 new job commitments with an average wage of $28 per hour in the last year.
“Hoosiers have risen to meet these unprecedented challenges, realizing much more work is to be done in this historic moment of opportunity,” Holcomb said. “The state of our state is resilient and growing. Our foundation has held strong.”
Holcomb took on a somber tone as he addressed the more than 9,000 Hoosier lives lost to COVID-19 and asked viewers of his address to join him in a silent prayer.
“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,” Holcomb said.
He then applauded the state’s health care workers and vaccination distribution, with 585,000 vaccines in the arms of Hoosiers or scheduled to be administered.
“Our decisions, our discipline, now enable us to do things that many other states won’t be able to do for years to come,” Holcomb said. “For Indiana, the future is now, and the world continues to hear Indiana’s engines roar.”
Citing Indiana’s healthy financial position despite the pandemic, Holcomb said his two-year budget includes restoring agency budgets to pre-pandemic levels, increasing K-12 budgets and restoring higher education funding, and paying down teacher pension debt and outstanding bonds.
Senate President Pro Tem Rodric Bray, R-Martinsville, voiced his support for Holcomb’s measures in a press release.
“Fully funding K-12 education, supporting workforce development initiatives, providing recovery assistance to our businesses that need it, and expanding broadband access are all critical to the future success of our state,” Bray said.
Because of the shift for many schools to online learning and the increasing necessity of reliable internet, Holcomb listed expanding broadband internet as a 2021 goal.
Katie Jenner, recently appointed secretary of education, applauded Holcomb’s education priorities in a press release.
“Gov. Holcomb outlined initiatives that demonstrate an appreciation and understanding of the challenges that schools face, which are the same challenges I’ve heard from educators across the state,” Jenner said.
Holcomb announced the creation of the Next Level Regional Recovery program, with the caveat that the state will only invest in this plan if the positive financial position for the state continues through the end of the fiscal year. This program would create cooperative initiatives among regions, educators, employers and the workforce to improve and grow the Indiana workforce. He said this program is in the beginning stages of development.
To improve Indiana’s infrastructure, plans for the construction of a new I-69 bridge over the Ohio River and future upgrades to portions of U.S. 30 and U.S. 31 will be pursued. This is possible because the extension of I-69 from Indianapolis to Evansville will be completed three years ahead of schedule and paid for, Holcomb said.
He said he hopes to continually provide more opportunities for Hoosiers and increase access to state government by making it “more touchless, 24-7 and virtual.”
The state’s first-ever cabinet-level chief equity, inclusion and opportunity officer will take office Feb. 1. Karrah Herring, a former public affairs director at Notre Dame University, will spearhead a new online diversity dashboard that will be accessible to the public. The dashboard will show reviews on diversity outcomes and the state’s law enforcement academy and agencies.
Indiana State Police officers will also be outfitted with body cameras.
Indiana Senate Democrats live-tweeted the address, stating, “Black Hoosiers need more than another diversity and inclusion executive. They need to be protected from dying at the hands of law enforcement and to start being heard by health care professionals and elected leaders.”
Democrats said Holcomb isn’t taking enough steps toward the goals he discussed.
John Zody, chairman of the Indiana Democratic Party, said Holcomb isn’t effectively fighting the COVID-19 pandemic and broke his promise to increase teacher pay and that more “good jobs” have left Indiana than have come in.
“Hoosiers can’t trust a governor who is all talk but no action, and tonight’s State of the State Address amounts to gaslighting,” Zody said.
Sydney Byerly and Taylor Wooten are reporters for TheStatehouseFile.com, a news website powered by Franklin College journalism students.