By BRIAN A. HOWEY

INDIANAPOLIS – Two months after nearly 15,000 teachers rallied at the Statehouse for more pay, Gov. Eric Holcomb used his fourth State of the State address to announce he would use $250 million of the state's $2.3 billion surplus to free up $55 million "to redirect to teacher pay."  But that won't happen until the 2021 biennial budget session.

Holcomb and the Republican super majorities had said they would wait until the next biennial budget session in 2021. Dr. Woody Myers, who is seeking the Democratic gubernatorial nomination, observed, "It took thousands of teachers rallying at the Statehouse saying, 'Enough is enough' for the governor to acknowledge that Indiana has failed our teachers and students. When adjusted for inflation, average Indiana teacher salaries have dropped 15% since 2000 and a third of new Indiana teachers leave their jobs within five years." 

Holcomb said that Indiana's robust financial standing "starts with a good education, and that means great schools filled with great teachers. I know a little about this. My mother was a teacher, and I saw how hard she worked."

"That’s why I created the Teacher Compensation Commission and asked them to come up with a sustainable plan to make our teacher salaries competitive with other Midwestern states," Holcomb said. "Their report is due this spring, but we didn’t wait. Last year, we devoted an unprecedented increase of $763 million new dollars in K-12 education, including paying down $150 million in the Teacher Retirement Fund, which freed up $65 million more a year for teacher pay increases. All of our school corporations have finalized their locally bargained contracts and more Indiana school districts have raised teacher salaries this year than in any other year in  recent history."

Holcomb contiued, "Tonight, I am recommending that in the next budget the General Assembly use an additional $250 million from our surplus and put it toward teacher retirement funds. In turn, $50 million a year will be generated to redirect to teacher pay. Together that’s $115 million more available annually to increase teacher pay with more to come after the Compensation Commission releases its recommendations."

Holcomb noted that the jobless rate has dropped to 3.2%, or a "19-year low."
He added, "We’ve set all-time records in jobs commitments and capital investment. In fact, there are an additional 88,000 jobs in the IEDC’s pipeline because of the work that’s been done in the past three years. And it’s not just the quantity of these jobs, but the quality. Last year’s new jobs commitments averaged more than $28 an hour – another all-time high.

He announced that "Fiat-Chrysler has chosen Indiana for diversification and will invest nearly $400 million in its Kokomo facility" and that other investment will be announced at the sprawling Toyota complex at Princeton.

The Republican governor added, "In 2019, we ranked: #1 in “infrastructure. Top two in the nation for “long-term fiscal stability, #1 in the Midwest and top five nationally for business. A recent editorial in the Chicago Tribune put it this way: 'What does Indiana offer that Illinois doesn’t? Lower taxes, more stable home values, balanced state budgets and funded pension systems.'"

Holcomb vowed to complete the "free-flow" U.S. 31 from South Bend to Indianapolis, and promised to strengthen public health and attack the drug epidemic. He said he would  "expand OB navigator program to 20 counties" and added, "We’ve taken many steps to attack the opioid epidemic, including restricting the number of prescriptions and increasing outpatient addiction treatment and the trend is finally improving. In 2018, opioid prescriptions dropped 12% – faster than the national average – and, most importantly, deaths from drug overdoses went down nearly 13% – twice the decline of the national average."

As for the troubled Department of Child Services, Holcomb said, "In 2018, I tasked Director Terry Stigdon to right the ship, and she did just that,
 undertaking a total culture change, focused on supporting the frontline staff who work directly with children. The result is a much more stable workforce. The turnover rate of family case managers has been reduced by 18%. And now we’re seeing significantly improved safety outcomes – fewer kids in the system, fewer returning to the system and a faster rate to permanency."

Myers was critical of Holcomb's record on education. "When it comes to ILEARN scores, the Governor’s plan to hold schools harmless doesn’t go far enough," Myers said. "His approach doesn’t address major issues in the state’s school accountability system. It is time to act to restructure the system and find long-term solutions. Teachers are not the only ones struggling in our state. Like teachers, too many of our lower-income Hoosiers are forced to work multiple jobs to make ends meet. We’re also seeing mass layoffs in cities like Jeffersonville, where 260 people are losing their jobs. The state must do more to ensure Hoosiers can make a living wage and stand ready to help those displaced from their careers."

Democratic gubernatorial candidate Josh Owens reacted, saying, "Hoosiers deserved to hear big, bold ideas tonight from Gov. Holcomb in his State of the State address. Hoosiers have deserved that from a governor who’s been in a position to take action for three years now. Instead, we got more of the same incrementalism. While Gov. Holcomb has finally come to see that Hoosier teachers aren’t paid anywhere near what they deserve and that our communities need, he still is offering only half measures and a “wait until next year” approach for real action."