By BRIAN A. HOWEY

INDIANAPOLIS – Gov. Eric Holcomb will unveil his 2019 Next Level Agenda that will be heavy with investments protecting Hoosier kids and students, with three events beginning at 11 a.m. today at the Statehouse South Atrium. He will then hit the road, with stops at 3 p.m. at Trader’s Point Creamery in Zionsville and at the Joseph Decuis Farm in Columbia City at 1 p.m. Friday.

Informed and reliable sources tell HPI that the governor’s commitment to rectify the deficiencies at the Department of Child Services will heavily shape the coming 2019 biennial budget. One source said that the commitment to DCS will mean less funding available in other areas.

The governor commissioned three studies this year, with the Child Welfare Policy and Practice Group issuing a number of recommendations last June. That report described a “culture of fear” at DCS, and Holcomb immediately pumped in $25 million, most of which increased caseworker salaries in an effort to increase employee retention. That came on top of a $285 million commitment Holcomb made during the current fiscal year.

Holcomb also launched studies on school safety and potential interstate tolling. Holcomb is passing on instituting tolls, angering former House Roads & Transportation Chairman Ed Soliday. He has already made moves on school safety investments and those are likely to continue in the 2019 General Assembly session.

The school safety study was released last August and it prompted Holcomb to issue a call for schools to signup for metal detectors, with 369 schools requesting 3,231 metal detectors. Holcomb also made $35 million in low-interest loans available to schools to increase school safety through the Indiana Common School Fund. 

“To remain a national leader in school safety, Indiana must address gaps in areas that go beyond hardening our buildings and training to respond to incidents,” the group said in its report that featured more access to mental health services and better information sharing as consistent themes. Other recommendations included: The expansion of mental health services with a potential large budgetary footprint (including mental health screening in schools); increasing funds for local law enforcement in schools; more safety grant funding flexibility; and a requirement for more active shooter drills.

So in addition to the DCS investments, Holcomb appears ready to prioritize school safety, foster parenting, as well as lowering the state’s infant mortality rate.

WRTV reported that Holcomb also is concerned about “teenage homegrown violent extremists in Indiana schools,” according to a Nov. 17 Indiana Department of Homeland Security report.

“The Governor of Indiana, IDHS, the FBI and the NCTC remain concerned about the potential for teenage HVE’s to conduct attacks inside the state or violence targeting a school with little to no warning,” the report states. “IDHS continues to urge vigilance and to report suspicious activities to law enforcement.”

Reporter Dan Carden of the NWI Times reported on Tuesday that Holcomb will be seeking funds to reduce infant mortality. Holcomb told participants at a capital city “Labor of Love” infant mortality summit that the issue will be “a top priority” on the 2019 legislative agenda. “Improving infant mortality, or as (State Health Commissioner) Dr. (Kristina) Box describes it, getting more babies to celebrate their first birthdays, is right at the top of our list,” Holcomb said. In 2016, 623 Indiana babies died before their first birthdays. Babies die for any number of complex reasons. Many were delivered prematurely or low weight. Poverty, stress, nutrition, pollution and access to health care all can be contributing factors.

Holcomb said he’s challenged Box and Dr. Jennifer Walthall, secretary of the Indiana Family and Social Services Administration (FSSA), to make Indiana “the best state in the Midwest for infant mortality by 2024.” 

“It’s a tall order,” Holcomb said.

The bright and shiny objects, such as medicinal marijuana, will generate headlines, but are not likely to become part of Holcomb’s agenda. Holcomb is on record saying that the federal Food & Drug Administration (FDA) would have to remove marijuana from its Schedule 1 status before he would sign any medicinal legislation. There will be some pressure on state lawmakers on this front, with Michigan approving recreational use beginning today, and Illinois and Ohio poised to move toward recreational legalization in 2019. Indiana currently spends funds on interdiction, prosecution and corrections, while other states are finding new revenue streams from this growing commodity. 

Holcomb is also prioritizing hate crime legislation with Republican Sens. Ron Alting and Mike Bohacek authoring the bill.

There has been some speculation that Holcomb may move on two Statehouse constitutional offices. The Indiana Chamber has called for the attorney general to become an appointed position, following earlier moves to make the superintendent of public instruction a gubernatorial appointee beginning in 2024. But Supt. Jennifer McCormick’s abrupt decision earlier this year not to seek reelection in 2020 gives Holcomb the opportunity to push that timeline up to 2020.

As for Attorney General Curtis Hill, Holcomb’s call for him to resign still stands, but sources say the governor is not likely push legislation aimed at the embattled Republican. Nor are we detecting any appetite for impeachment in the two majority caucuses.