By BRIAN A. HOWEY

INDIANAPOLIS – When Gov. Eric Holcomb appeared at the House podium Tuesday night for his sixth State of the State address, it came amidst surreal circumstances that have consistently defined his political career.

Indiana’s hospitals were swamped with mostly unvaccinated COVID-19 patients and in a crisis mode. The state had a historically low 3% unemployment rate and there were 150,000 job openings coming at a time of what is being called the “Great Resignation” (or the “Great Retirement”) that is potentially skewing labor statistics. Holcomb avoided the hot button social issues percolating among the two General Assembly Republican super majorities. He is being confronted by a Republican attorney general and spoke to a General Assembly that earlier this year had overridden two of his vetoes.

So here was Gov. Holcomb, who ascended to office in 2016 while “building the airplane in mid-air,” now confronting a third year of a pandemic crisis that resulted in $13 billion of emergency federal aid flooding into his beloved Indiana, giving, perhaps, his best State of the State address yet. It was full of passion as he outlined reasons for optimism. Just hours after his speech, the Associated Press moved a story suggesting that the Omicron variant surge could wane quickly. The reason? The variant has proved so wildly contagious that it may already be running out of people to infect, just a month and a half after it was first detected in South Africa. “It’s going to come down as fast as it went up,” said Ali Mokdad, a professor of health metrics sciences at the University of Washington in Seattle.

For executives like President Biden, Holcomb and his 49 brothers and sisters, a petered-out pandemic would be an answer to a multitude of prayers.

When Holcomb “finally” got around to addressing the COVID elephant about 25 minutes into the speech, he spoke emphatically to the 48% of Hoosiers who remain unvaccinated and are enabling the continued proliferation of the most lethal pandemic in a century.

“Finally, I couldn’t give a State of the State address without giving an update on COVID-19 and the extraordinary personal toll it’s had on our families,” Holcomb said. “To date, more than 19,000 Hoosier lives have been lost – more than live in Huntington, or Crawfordsville or Jasper. Hospitals are diverting patients in search of available beds. The number of ICU beds in use is almost at an all-time high, and it’s difficult to find one around the state.

“I want to thank over 3.5 million Hoosiers who are vaccinated and those getting boosted. You are a big reason our hospital network hasn’t collapsed,” Holcomb said at a time when numerous medical sources describe that network in “crisis,” with Hoosiers literally dying while awaiting emergency room access. “We know that people who are getting vaccinated and boosted overwhelmingly stay out of the hospital, stay out of the ICU, and don’t die,” he said.

Holcomb once again made a pitch to those 48% who remain unvaccinated. “If you haven’t been vaccinated, I encourage, I plead, I even beg you to speak to your doctor and do so. I say this, even if you’ve disagreed with every position I’ve taken. I just want us both to be around to continue to have those disagreements. And a special thank you to all of those who are putting others above themselves to continue the battle against COVID-19. Our hospitals have been under siege. Our health care providers are exhausted, physically and mentally, as are those taking care of our nursing home residents, and students in our schools, and our own State Health Department quarterbacking it all, and everyone supporting them.”

It was the kind of ringing endorsement of a vital process that health officials had preferred him to make consistently over the past 10 months after the vaccination process stalled. They had urged him to use more media methods to change the trajectory of the recalcitrant.

Holcomb opened his address by quoting another crisis leader, World War II British PM Winston Churchill: “A pessimist sees the difficulty in every opportunity; an optimist sees the opportunity in every difficulty.”

“Ladies and gentlemen, color me an optimist, because there has never been a more opportune time to realize our true potential than right now. Even as we’re contending with the challenges of a global pandemic, we’re simultaneously strengthening our economy, reskilling our workforce, building out our infrastructure, and enhancing our quality of life. And now, because we’re ready and able, we’re revitalizing and connecting our communities across the state like never before.”

Holcomb then let his optimism spill forth:

On the economy: “Our GDP has grown from $353 billion in 2017 to now $415 billion, at a rate outpacing Michigan, Ohio, Illinois, and Kentucky. We rank No. 1 among those states in personal income growth from 2015 to 2020 as well. And our unemployment rate – 3% – is our lowest in 21 years and lower than every state we touch. Today, 73,000 more Hoosiers are working compared to just before the pandemic hit. In another measure of our growth and vitality, more people are choosing to live in Indiana.”

On workforce issues: “While education is the starting point, we must do more to align our state’s K-12, higher ed, workforce, and economic development efforts. There is power in their synergy. That’s why we launched the one-stop-shop website that proactively connects unemployed and underemployed Hoosiers with customized job and training opportunities. Two hundred and forty employers and 16,000 individuals have already created profiles. And our Workforce Ready and Employer Training Grant programs continue to move more Hoosiers into higher paying jobs and increase the number of people achieving a post-secondary education. Since 2017, more than 52,000 Hoosiers have enrolled in our Workforce Ready program, and those who earned a credit saw an average wage gain of $6,800 a year.

On state coffers: “We closed the 2021 fiscal year with $3.9 billion in reserves, so we put an extra $1.1 billion toward our obligation to our teachers’ pension fund. And we’re sending $545 million back to Hoosier taxpayers in the form of an automatic taxpayer refund.”

On state investment: “Last year, the Indiana Economic Development Corp. set all-time records in three key categories: $8.7 billion in new capital investment, more than $1.8 billion in new payroll and 31,000 jobs created with average wages over $28 an hour.”

On infrastructure: “We’re in the midst of deploying $60 billion over 20 years to expand and enhance the roads and bridges that connect our communities, paid for with cash, not debt-financed. We’re investing $3.6 billion just this year in road projects throughout Indiana. And we’re near completion, three years ahead of schedule, on I-69, which will create one continuous route from Canada all the way to our nation’s southern border. Add to that, through our Community Crossings program, cities, towns and counties have resurfaced or reconstructed more than 20,000 lane-miles of road and repaired or replaced 119 bridges in just the last four years.”

On public health: “Here are the facts: Indiana ranks 46th in obesity, 46th in smoking, and 40th in childhood immunizations, each of which can lead to life-threatening and costly complications down the road. Like everywhere else in America, our efforts to tackle addiction in our communities have been compounded by the pandemic and we’ve seen increased fentanyl use. So we must double down to reach more people with substance-use disorder and get them into recovery and back to their families, work, or school. That’s why the Indiana Public Health Commission will submit a report this summer with recommendations ready for the 2023 budget session, so we can modernize and strengthen the state’s public health system overall, one person at a time.”
 
On teacher pay: “More than 85% of school corporations raised teacher base salaries by an average of nearly $1,800 in the 2020-2021 school year, and 99% are expected to raise salaries in the current school year. The state’s goal for new teacher salaries is $40,000 by July 1. Some 80% of schools will have achieved that goal.”

On quality of life: “We’re also in the middle of the largest expansion of walking, hiking and biking trails in our state’s history, investing up to $150 million helping Hoosiers and our guests enjoy our state’s natural beauty, linking 112 miles of new happy trails to neighborhoods. Thanks to this effort, 94% of Hoosiers now live within five miles of a trail. And you’ll find more shade on those trails, because our commitment to planting 1 million new trees is ahead of schedule. We’ve planted more than 400,000 trees so far and another 200,000 will be planted this spring.”

Strange reactions

There were two double take moments during the 30-minute speech. When Holcomb urged Hoosiers to vaccinate, it was the small Democratic caucuses who led the applause, slowly spreading over to the dominant GOP majorities.

When the governor intoned, “And, as the No. 1 manufacturing state in America per capita, we must eliminate the 30% business personal property tax floor on new equipment to instantly ensure Indiana is more competitive with surrounding states, encouraging further capital investment here, and positioning us to become an even more dominant player in the advanced manufacturing age,” the reaction from House Republicans, who were more eager to push this cut than their Senate colleagues, was somewhat muted.

Holcomb made no reference to the hot button “cultural issues” such as Critical Race Theory and school curriculum, constitutional carry, and anti-vaccine mandate bills that appear poised to pass, at least, in the House.

History repeating . . .

Gov. Holcomb ended his speech, saying, “History has shown again and again that it’s when we’re facing the toughest challenges that we can be at our best. Despite our challenges, this is a time of unprecedented Indiana growth, connections, momentum, and opportunity for all Hoosiers. This is our time to build an even stronger Indiana, not just for today, but for decades to come. And that, my friends, is what we’re doing!”

Reactions

Indiana Democratic Chairman Mike Schmuhl:
“To start, the American Rescue Plan is the central reason why Indiana has a brighter future, and it was only Democrats who delivered this for Hoosiers. Whether it’s the state’s READI program, handing teachers a pay raise, funding public schools at levels not seen in a decade, or bringing transformational broadband investments to families – the Rescue Plan made it possible. Gov. Holcomb, Lt. Gov. Suzanne Crouch, and Indiana Republicans can do everything in their power to ignore these facts, but the truth always prevails and Democrats are confident Hoosiers will see through the Indiana Republican Party’s hollow partisanship on the economy. Between the constant dismissal of the life-saving vaccine to questioning the state’s figures on cases, hospitalizations, and even deaths, Republicans have shown that their effort to score political points comes before the public health of Hoosiers.”

Indiana Republican Chairman Kyle Hupfer:
“With plenty of momentum behind him, tonight Gov. Holcomb outlined his bold plan to keep Indiana moving forward. Now in his sixth year in office, he reminded us of what’s possible under strong Republican leadership, and what it truly means to Build One Indiana for All. Indiana’s future is bright.”

Lt. Gov. Suzanne Crouch:
“Our state’s fiscally responsible investments continue to make Indiana a leader in the Midwest and nation for families and businesses. Our incredible growth has taken us to a low unemployment rate that we haven’t experienced in more than 20 years, and Indiana is reaping the benefits that our neighboring states envy. I applaud Gov. Eric Holcomb for his vision to navigate these unprecedented times. I look forward to another year of investing in our infrastructure, recruiting talent for our businesses and keeping Indiana a low tax state.”

House Speaker Todd Huston: “Gov. Holcomb did an outstanding job telling Indiana’s incredible success story while laying out his vision for the future. Our state is on a roll – whether it’s attracting new investments at a record pace, growing our top-ranked economy, creating upward mobility for working Hoosiers or preparing to play a lead role in industries of the future. We’ll continue working with Gov. Holcomb to take our shared priorities across the finish line, including making sure Hoosiers keep more of their hard earned money through responsible tax cuts.”

Senate President Pro Tem Rodric Bray: “Thanks to more than a decade of conservative fiscal leadership, Indiana is in a strong position as we look toward the future. With the governor’s help, we will continue our push to make Indiana the most competitive and prosperous state it can be. I sincerely appreciate Gov. Holcomb’s practical approach to leading our state, and I look forward to working with him and the lieutenant governor as we tackle the challenges in front of us.”

House Democratic Leader Phil GiaQuinta:
“Gov. Holcomb’s address was a stark contrast from his colleagues in the legislature. I appreciate his willingness to focus on issues important to Hoosiers, not political games and divisive, hyper-partisan agendas. I’m proud of Indiana’s resiliency and better than expected economic position given the challenges presented by the ongoing pandemic. Our state was given unique opportunities for critical quality-of-life investments thanks to the ‘Biden Boom.’ Federal Democrats’ passage of the American Rescue Plan Act and Infrastructure Investment and Jobs Act helped increase teacher pay, provided funding for READI grants, and invested in roads and crucial infrastructure in all 92 Hoosier counties. However, there is still work to be done.”

Democratic Senate Leader Greg Taylor: “Once again, the governor’s rosy picture of our state does not pair with the actual state of Indiana as it concerns everyday Hoosiers. While our state’s economy is prospering thanks to assistance from the American Rescue Plan, that’s only a small part of the picture. The bigger picture is that many, many Hoosiers are struggling. They’re struggling to access quality child care and well-paying jobs that allow them to make ends meet. They’re fighting to stay healthy and protect their families as we see COVID-19 cases rise across the state. They’re struggling to make their rent and utility payments on time to stay in their homes. While I was glad to hear about the governor’s plans to invest in projects around our state, his address was alarmingly silent about many of the everyday issues currently impacting Hoosiers. We cannot address the problems affecting Hoosiers if the governor of our state consistently fails to acknowledge those problems.”