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Holcomb unveils modest agenda for upcoming legislative session

Gov. Eric Holcomb announces his 2019 legislative agenda Thursday at Traders Point Creamery in Indianapolis.

INDIANAPOLIS — Gov. Eric Holcomb is seeking myriad incremental changes to many existing state government programs and services, but he will not ask the Indiana General Assembly next year to enact major new initiatives or spend much additional money.

The Republican chief executive on Thursday announced a 2019 legislative agenda that takes steps toward achieving his long-term goals for the state, while avoiding positions on several hot-button topics, such as gambling and gun rights, that almost are certain to dominate the four-month legislative session that begins Jan. 3.

Plans for changes to education and workforce development comprise the bulk of the governor's agenda, just as they did in his first two sessions.

Holcomb said he supports additional funding in the two-year state budget for kindergarten-through-12th-grade education. But he declined to say how much of an increase he'll ask the Republican-controlled General Assembly to approve.

The governor also said he favors boosting teacher pay, though he insisted that it will take up to four years to identify the state "resources and actions" needed for teachers to start seeing more money in their paychecks.

"We want to do it right, and it's a big number. We have some ground to make up here," Holcomb said. "But I want to make sure that local control remains intact and it's not just we write a check and then say it goes here. That is not the way that we do business."

In fact, some Hoosier teachers potentially will see a pay cut if Holcomb succeeds in his goal of eliminating the $30 million currently allocated each year for the Teacher Appreciation Grant performance-pay program.

Holcomb wants to repurpose that money to increase to $500 the state income tax credit for teachers who purchase school supplies using their own funds. The state credit currently is $100.

His plan additionally calls for changing how some $150 million in career and technical education funds annually are spent to ensure that more elementary and high school students are career-aware and adults pursuing new careers have access to the training they need to succeed.

Likewise, the governor is not seeking more money for the state's On My Way pre-kindergarten pilot program that currently serves about 3,000 children in 20 counties, including Lake, disappointing those who view universal pre-K as essential to preparing Hoosier 4-year-olds for school and eventually for work.

"It's a little-risk, little-reward approach befitting of a shrewd politician, but leadership it is not," said Indiana Party Democratic Chairman John Zody. "If you're unwilling or unable to tackle our state’s biggest problems, what are you getting up to do every day?"

Other agenda pieces

Holcomb's economic agenda includes enacting a balanced budget, as required by the Indiana Constitution; streamlining business tax credits in an effort to lure more companies to the state; and exempting military pensions from state income tax, a proposal previously rejected by the General Assembly.

His infrastructure plan consists of spending the $1 billion Indiana received in exchange for permitting the Indiana Toll Road operator to hike rates in October by 35 percent on trucks and other large vehicles.

While most of that money is earmarked for road work on Interstate 69 in central Indiana and U.S. 30 and 31 in northern Indiana, another $100 million will go toward expanding rural broadband availability, $90 million for regional and local trail projects and $20 million to subsidize international flights at the capital city airport.

"Next Level Trails' strong focus on partnerships will drive collaboration among neighboring cities, towns and counties, as well as fill gaps among existing trails to create a larger network for more Hoosiers to enjoy the great outdoors," Holcomb said.

The governor is planning to launch new programs to reduce Indiana's worst-in-the-Midwest infant mortality rate and provide additional treatment options for Hoosiers addicted to drugs, primarily using federal funds to cover the costs.

At the same time, Holcomb is seeking only to maintain state school safety grant funding at $14 million a year and plans no major changes to the Department of Child Services beyond those recommended in June by a consultant.

Holcomb additionally called on state lawmakers to enact a bias crime statute that includes protections for transgender Hoosiers because he said Indiana should not be on the "naughty list" of five states that do not enhance felony sentences for crimes motivated by hate or bias toward a victim's protected characteristics.

House Speaker Brian Bosma, R-Indianapolis, who has warned that including transgender individuals will doom any hate crime proposal, said he nevertheless is ready to cooperate with the governor on "our shared priorities."

"We appreciate the governor’s leadership and vision for 2019, and look forward to working with him and our Senate colleagues next session to meet the state’s needs and build on Indiana’s success story," Bosma said.

House Democratic Leader Phil GiaQuinta, D-Fort Wayne, said his caucus will have no problem supporting the governor's call for improved school funding, increased teacher pay, help for veterans, reduced infant mortality and a better-trained workforce.

"As they say, the devil is in the details," GiaQuinta said. "I'm not sure House Democrats will need much selling. Republicans in the House and Senate might."

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Statehouse Bureau Chief

Dan is Statehouse Bureau Chief for The Times. Since 2009, he's reported on Indiana government and politics — and how both impact the Region — from the state capital in Indianapolis. He originally is from Orland Park, Ill.