INDIANAPOLIS — Gov. Eric Holcomb is laying the groundwork to run for re-election in 2020, but the Republican insists that for at least the next four-and-a-half months he's solely focused on enacting what he considers to be a "bold" agenda.
State campaign finance records show Holcomb is poised to end the year with close to $3 million in his campaign account, an amount similar to the fundraising totals of his two Republican gubernatorial predecessors as they entered the third year of their first terms.
In an exclusive interview with The Times, Holcomb said he can't think of any reason why he wouldn't run for re-election.
"We're in a strong position to do so," he acknowledged.
Though Holcomb quickly added: "That is a long commitment, and one that won't be made by just myself. As a matter of fact, my wife may have a higher percentage of the decision than me."
No Hoosier governor has chosen not to seek a second, four-year term since the constitution was amended in 1972 to permit consecutive terms, a record Holcomb knows well as a student of Indiana history and 2008 campaign manager for Gov. Mitch Daniels.
At the same time, Holcomb said, "I don't want to take my eye off the ball right now, preparing our legislative and administrative agenda and then working to realize it, which will take us through the legislative session.
"Then, after that, it will be time to turn our attention to the year ahead."
'Next Level' agenda
Holcomb forcefully disagrees with criticism by Hoosier Democrats that the governor's recently announced 2019 legislative agenda is akin to a layup in a basketball game because it scores a couple of easy points but isn't particularly inspiring.
The governor said such characterizations are "almost insulting" in light of his plans to spend $1 billion over the next few years to speed completion of Interstate 69 in central Indiana, expand rural internet access, grow the state's bike trail network and subsidize direct international flights to the capital city airport.
"When you think of helping connect 400,000 Hoosiers to affordable high-speed internet access, claiming that is remotely close to modest is a different world," he said.
Holcomb later admitted that none of those projects requires legislative approval, since the $1 billion was paid to the state by the Indiana Toll Road operator in exchange for the Holcomb administration's authorizing a 35 percent truck toll hike in October.
As for what he's actually asking from the Republican-controlled General Assembly, Holcomb said that seeking to grow the state's pre-kindergarten pilot program by just 500 seats over the next two years could fairly be described as modest.
"Sure there are some incremental steps in this that you could call modest," he said. "But that is a step, and continues to be a step in the right direction."
Holcomb also countered with examples of what he said are "bold" legislative initiatives, including his call for Indiana to enact a bias crime statute and to move up to 2021 the start date for an appointed, instead of elected, state superintendent of public instruction.
In fact, those measures already were debated by the General Assembly in Holcomb's first two legislative sessions.
Bias crimes faltered in the Senate when GOP lawmakers objected to identifying transgender individuals as a protected class, a fight that House Speaker Brian Bosma, R-Indianapolis, has said is likely to again imperil passage of the criminal-sentencing enhancement.
Likewise, Senate action in 2017 forced the postponement of an appointed state schools chief to 2025.
Since then, groups wanting the governor to have near-total control of Indiana education have called for an appointed superintendent to start in 2021, a sword of Damocles that elected Superintendent Jennifer McCormick, a Republican, said has made it increasingly difficult for her to lead Indiana's schools, and prompted her to announce that she would not seek re-election.
Other items on Holcomb's agenda include increasing state education funding by an unspecified amount, working to provide teachers meaningful pay raises by 2022, continuing to promote workforce development programs as lifelong learning, and putting new resources toward reducing the state's worst-in-the-Midwest infant mortality rate.
"It's not just a legislative agenda," he said. "It's a legislative and an executive agenda, and it is what can we do as the executive branch to take our state to the next level."