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WATCH NOW: COVID-19 fuels debate between Indiana governor candidates
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WATCH NOW: COVID-19 fuels debate between Indiana governor candidates

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Gov. Eric Holcomb was pummeled from the left and right during a debate Tuesday for simultaneously not doing enough to minimize the spread of COVID-19 and exceeding his authority by temporarily ordering businesses closed and Hoosiers to wear face masks.

The Republican chief executive, however, defended his administration's response to the global coronavirus pandemic that has infected more than 150,000 Hoosiers since March 6 and killed at least 3,775, according to the State Department of Health.

"This is an extraordinary time and we've had to take extraordinary measures," Holcomb said. "So we do have a state-mandated mask requirement throughout the state; it's a strong statement that says this works."

That's insufficient according to Dr. Woody Myers, the Democratic gubernatorial nominee and a former state health commissioner, who said Holcomb's mask "mandate" is being widely ignored.

Myers pledged during the one-hour debate to enact a real mandate, with penalties for noncompliance, on his first day in office.

"The governor has powers that he or she can use in order to protect the public," Myers said. "Let's do what we can do right now to protect our citizens from this virus until we have a safe and effective vaccine."

Meanwhile, the Libertarian Party gubernatorial candidate, Donald Rainwater, blasted Holcomb for using executive orders to manage the state through the pandemic.

Rainwater said the governor should have called the Republican-controlled General Assembly back into session for the peoples' representatives to decide what steps Indiana should take in responding to COVID-19.

"COVID-19 didn't close any small businesses, executive orders did," Rainwater said. "Every Hoosier is essential and every business of every size provides the necessities of life to the people who depend on it for their living."

"Unfortunately, that didn't matter for the last 10 months."

Holcomb defended his COVID-19 response by pointing out the shutdowns of March and April were necessary to protect Indiana's health care system from being overwhelmed with coronavirus patients prior to the state securing the necessary space to accommodate them and personal protective equipment.

Since then, Holcomb said, Indiana's economy has roared back to life, with the state unemployment rate dropping to 6.2% in September from 17.5% in April, and numerous companies pledging to relocate to Indiana's low-tax, minimal-regulation business climate.

"What we seek to do, ultimately, is make sure that Indiana remains a great state for businesses, for individuals, to invest in, so we grow," Holcomb said.

The tone of the debate — sponsored by the nonpartisan Indiana Debate Commission and moderated by Andrew Downs, associate professor of political science at Purdue University Fort Wayne — was generally collegial, due in part to the candidates being stationed in separate rooms in the WFYI-TV studios in Indianapolis to prevent the possible spread of COVID-19.

Nevertheless, there were some surprise moments, including the Democratic candidate, Myers, promising to appoint Republican State Superintendent of Public Instruction Jennifer McCormick as head of the Indiana Department of Education if he is elected on Nov. 3.

"Perhaps the most important role in Indiana state government is that of the secretary of education," Myers said. "Indiana deserves leadership that puts people before politics."

Myers also pledged to increase state spending on elementary and high school education to provide Hoosier teachers with significant pay raises.

In response, Holcomb noted he's already boosted K-12 education funding by $1.6 billion over the past four years, and vowed to ensure in coming years the average pay for a new teacher will hit $40,000, and average pay for experienced teachers is at least $60,000.

Rainwater, on the other hand, pledged to shrink state government as much as possible by finding billions of dollars of "waste, fraud and abuse" in the bureaucracy that would allow him to eliminate both personal income taxes and residential property taxes.

He also called for scrapping Indiana's licensing requirement to carry a handgun in public.

The three gubernatorial candidates are scheduled to participate in a second and final debate at 6 p.m. Oct. 27, just one week before Election Day.

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