BLOOMINGTON – As Gov. Eric Holcomb headed toward his first 100-day milepost, as well as the homestretch of his first Indiana General Assembly session, Hoosiers have discovered a governor who is perceived to be off to a good start, acts as if he knows the terrain, is well-staffed and hasn’t shied away from departures from his predecessors.
Holcomb presented the General Assembly and public with a “five pillar” policy strategy, much of which is centered on a 20-year road and infrastructure plan that is on course to pass later this month. In a political era where the obsession in Washington and past General Assemblies was a two-year cycle, Holcomb borrowed from Gov. Mitch Daniels’ epic Major Moves plan of 2006, which set in motion a fully-funded 10-year plan. Holcomb is on a course to double that, has pressed for gasoline and diesel tax increases after decades of reticence of even mentioning the phrase.
Howey Politics Indiana caught up with Gov. Holcomb at Indiana University last Thursday. He spent a half hour at the second annual America’s Role in the World Conference at IU’s School of Global and International Studies, where he took questions from IU President Michael McRobbie. There was then a rendezvous at Nick’s English Hut, where over stromboli sandwiches Holcomb took questions from HPI.
On the immediate horizon was the road plan. Holcomb had his second press conference the following day and said he was leaning toward the Senate version of HB1001, which steered away from a cigarette tax increase and paved the way for potential interstate highway tolling.
“Cigarette taxes have more to do with public health, and that discussion,” Holcomb explained. “I want to focus the discussion on infrastructure on how we’re going to pay for our roads and bridges.”
To HPI, Holcomb said, “I commend the leadership and membership of the House, who went first, and the Senate for proposals they put forward. They are credible, they will pay for our needs, which we’ve all agreed on, though we don’t agree 100%. We are three weeks out tomorrow from the end of session, adjourning a week early, and we are very close.”
“The most important thing for me is to have a robust, sustainable roads plan that absolutely takes care of our maintenance a decade-plus,” Holcomb told HPI. Holcomb said a tolling plan could start in six years, but would not include I-465. “It is not my preference where the majority of traffic is the local commuters,” he said.
A Senate committee made several significant changes in HB1002 the prior Tuesday, including the phase-in of a 10-cent -a-gallon tax hike at 5 cents over two years. There would be a similar phase-in on the sale of diesel fuel. The Senate changes would eliminate shifting gas tax revenue to road funding. And the Senate version would give the governor an option of imposing tolls on interstate highways.
Holcomb added, “I’m in a good mood about the whole agenda; first and foremost, it’s been a very constructive, productive and collaborative effort every day. The House, Senate and governor, we’ve all been focused on how we’re going to take the state to the next level. We are laser-focused on how we’re going to improve our workforce, our infrastructure, diversify our economy.”
Holcomb may face bigger changes on HB1001, the biennial budget. While the House raised cigarette taxes by $1 a pack and shifts the gas tax to roads, the Senate budget doesn’t. Asked about the revenue forecast expected on April 12, Holcomb said he didn’t expect any major curve balls. “I’m confident we’re going to get a good report. We want to make sure the hallmark of our state legislature and governor’s office is living within our means. We want to make sure we live up to that; we don’t want to write checks we can’t cash, but I don’t think we’re going to be in that situation.”
On another big issue, HB1005 which would make the elected superintendent of public instruction a gubernatorial appointment, Holcomb said he has talked to three freshmen senators who flipped on SB179, which was defeated 26-23. The Senate Rules Committee revived HB1005, making changes on residency requirements and putting off the date until 2025.
“In the House, it received bipartisan support,” Holcomb said. “Sen. Buck had his own bill which failed due to some confusion. Having said that, the bill is alive and moving forward.  At the onset of the session, I told you, ‘Look for every idea I have and if you can improve it, share it with me.’ I don’t have pride of authorship. We’ll continue to work on all the details on this specific bill. All of the members I have talked to since that vote in the Senate have been very productive. I understand where they were coming from at the time.”
Here is the rest of the HPI and McRobbie interviews:
HPI: Give us an overview of where you see your administration at this early point.
Holcomb: Besides improving the workforce, infrastructure and economy, another of my priorities is taking on the drug epidemic that is ripping us apart. A top priority for me is making sure our new executive director on substance abuse, Jim McClelland, emerges post-session in May with a strategic plan of action.
HPI: How much funding for opioids will there be?
Holcomb: There will be $5 million in the budget.
HPI: Is HIP 2.0 on a stable footing? The RyanCare legislation was preparing to make deep cuts into Medicaid, potentially as early as 2018. Did HIP 2.0 get a reprieve?
Holcomb: We’re in good shape. We’ve sought a waiver for an extension; I hope to hear more on that sooner rather than later. That waiver extension included giving us more flexibility to extend service to the overall Medicaid population in terms of substance abuse and mental illness. While things may be stalled out on the national front in terms of repealing and replacing the ACA, we are not stalled.
HPI: How much federal revenue comes to Indiana Medicaid annually, $3 billion?
Holcomb: Around that. Medicaid is an entitlement on the path to bankruptcy. It is unsustainable. It is hollowing out spending in every state. Rhode Island is an example of how to get more flexibility and more control as a state, to provide better service and rein in costs to the tune of hundreds of millions. Rhode Island has already achieved this. That’s why governors are champing at the bit to get more control over costs and more flexibility. We can be more innovative. We can supply the services our citizens need, but we can’t do it with a one size fits all. Truly the states are laboratories. That’s why I’m encouraged by this new administration’s general perspective to give power back to the states, whether it’s block grants for health care or road funding or workforce programs.
HPI: I observed recently that powerful governors make sure that a mongrel bill never gets close to their desk. RFRA would never have made it close to Gov. Daniels’ desk a year prior to reelection. Am I right on that?
Holcomb: I’ll let him speak for himself.
HPI: So we have the abortion reversal bills and we have Chairman Rodric Bray in the Senate and Chairman Ben Smaltz in the House saying they don’t have time to hear the bills. Any comment on that? I notice you have a wry smile on your face.
Holcomb: What I have tried to do in every conversation, I have stressed at how focused I am on our economy, on our workforce/education, on our infrastructure, on our getting control of this drug epidemic, and being able to provide good government service at a great taxpayer value. I have been laser-focused on those areas. I’m not going to be distracted.  If we address successfully those five areas, we will lift all boats. There is synergy there. In answer to your question, I have been stressing my agenda; this is what I’m going to be focused on. I’m pleased where we are.
HPI: Attorney General Curtis Hill has reacted to your decision to allow local control on the needle exchange program by saying that drug addicts can’t be saved. What’s your reaction to that?
Holcomb: The needle exchange program is two-fold. It’s just one small part of the whole issue, but it’s also about local control. It’s about trusting the locals to respond first. We give local communities the ability to respond to all sorts of crises first. Why not on this front as well? If something goes awry, the state has the ability to come in and right the ship. I will continue to press for local control because they can respond first and fast.
HPI: Let’s talk about East Chicago. The Pence administration really didn’t engage on on the lead contamination crisis. Gov. Pence never went there and there was only $100,000 in state funds to help. It was the ignored stepchild. Your engagement has been entirely different. Talk about your approach to the East Chicago lead contamination crisis?
Holcomb: East Chicago to me has been the perfect example of making room at the table. After I declared the emergency, I went up there, which in my mind started the shot clock, to hold me and the State of Indiana accountable for doing our part, knowing that we had a new federal administration who would more than return my phone calls. So I wanted to strike while the iron was hot. In East Chicago, one lady said, “We have never all sat at this table together.” You have to call the meeting and then develop collaboratively the plan of attack, and that’s what we’ve done, partnering with the local community, Mayor Copeland, and the new federal administration. I look forward to the day when the new EPA administrator, Scott Pruitt, walks the streets of East Chicago with me.
HPI: Is he going to?
Holcomb: He has accepted the invitation and Dr. Ben Carson, too. These have been good partners. They have an interest in East Chicago as well.
HPI: HUD Secretary Carson has accepted as well?
Holcomb: He has received the invitation. He came on later than Pruitt. I actually met Scott Pruitt at the National Governors Association and talked to him personally. Now we’ve got a website up that lists the to-do list, what’s occurred. We’re in communication with some vendors about filters and we’re moving forward. One day we’re going to look back and say it was the power of collaboration and people coming together that got this moving in the right direction.
HPI: Did you gulp when you received Mayor Copeland’s $54 million wish list?
Holcomb: I’d rather deal with the facts on the table, and so we’re going to solve it together. Communication is the key. So the more I get along with Mayor Copeland, the better. I like him and he’s in this position at a unique time in their history. He’s demanding and he’s up to the job.
HPI: Is statewide, universal pre-K going to be a year-two or -three goal? I know you’re concentrating on roads and infrastructure this session.
Holcomb: Never universal. But I do believe that we currently have a pilot program underway and what I want to do is continue to address the need being met by that pilot program. There is still more need to address the current 138% poverty level. What I most want to do is boil it down to one objective, to double the number of kids being served, continuing that forward momentum, continuing to address the need. We certainly have to address capacity and availability of pre-K service in Indiana. I don’t want to pour good money into one or two quality facilities. But where there are threes and fours, and there is a need of kids, I want to continue to address those needs and make it a priority. This is a priority I’ve shared with the leaders.
HPI: You know I’ve advocated universal broadband, getting high-speed Internet to that last mile. I’ve been working with the Brown County Broadband Task Force and have gotten a grip on many of the issues. New York Gov. Cuomo has vowed to provide universal coverage in his state. Will that be a priority for you, knowing that it dovetails into the heroin/meth crisis, where rural communities are being left behind economically? Broadband could be a lifesaver for many of these rural communities. Will that be a priority for you down the road?
Holcomb: It is a priority. We just talked to the Indiana University president about connecting to the world. That takes massive investment. What I am stoked about is what’s currently underway and what is on the horizon in terms of the private sector addressing this blinking neon light of need, especially in the rural areas. Indiana has hilly landscape in Southern Indiana especially, and that makes it more expensive. But I believe that it’s not just the state’s responsibility. I believe the private sector will be meeting a lot of needs that were once deserts of connectivity.
HPI: Do you enjoy being governor?
Holcomb: There is much more good that happens every day as opposed to the bad and ugly. Of course you have to deal with the good, the bad and the ugly. As governor you’re really affected and impacted with every single experience you have with someone. It’s therefore a very fulfilling job that you can’t turn off,  issues that have to be addressed. I said at the very beginning of this administration I was looking for three Hs and traits in people who were honest, humble and hungry. We’ve got it. We are focused unlike any administration I’ve seen. That’s why I am typically smiling.
This is a two-part HPI Interview, with the IU conference and President McRobbie following:
McRobbie: Beginning with his State of the State address, Gov. Holcomb has gotten off to an excellent start. How have your travels abroad shaped your personal views and in particular how it may shape and influence your policies?
Holcomb: You quickly realize on a flight 13 hours non-stop, you get the sense it is a big world. Particularly when you land, whether it is the U.K. or China, the world gets smaller, and smaller and smaller. From an Indianacentric perspective, we have an international brand here. In large part because of Indiana University and all the good work that you do, and we have the Indianapolis Motor Speedway and the 500 with all the international drivers year after year. So many more corporations are here. We have established deep roots in the worldwide economy. The Indiana brand is powerful. I will seek every bit of leverage with that; I will go anywhere and everywhere leaving no stone unturned.
McRobbie: When you look at Indiana, you have manufacturing and agricultural which rely very much on exports. In that context, what are your thoughts about globalization and trade?
Holcomb: Globalization is a fact of life. To think you can retreat from that, again, the world will continue to get smaller and smaller. So many of the partnerships we have established through the Indiana Economic Development Corporation over the years are relationships we must continue to cultivate. There are over 800 foreign-owned companies employing 152,000 Hoosiers. Every time we lure an international company, this an everyday world view. Companies will locate where the market and workforce exist. If you’re not growing, you are dying. That’s true in corporate America and it’s true with our universities. In Indiana and every state, that leads to more opportunity for our citizens.
McRobbie: I was with Gov. Daniels when we visited China. What are your priorities?
Holcomb: We will continue to cultivate the relationships we have, not just visiting countries abroad to say thank you and working on those relationships to expand and strengthen, but to also seek to diversity. We’ll make trips to China and Japan and we’re going to France later this year and India. My research shows I’ll be the first governor of Indiana to go to India. We will go where the prospects will be and we are receiving a lot of invitations. I wake up every morning trying to bring the world to Indiana and Indiana to the world. Good things can come from strengthening relationships.
McRobbie: When it comes to foreign investing, is it your view that you look overseas for new high tech opportunities?
Holcomb: I don’t think it’s an either or situation. We are an agricultural and manufacturing powerhouse. Every industry I know is ag, plus tech, medical device plus tech. So if you’re not pursuing the plus tech, you’re dying. You’re not going to be around much longer. So absolutely anywhere else in the world, they’re looking for that sweet spot in our state. They are looking local, and I see the mayors of Bloomington and LaPorte and South Bend here. It’s up to us to partner as well. This world has become not just driven by demographics, but in large part by partnerships at every level of our government. We are establishing and firming up those relationships.
McRobbie: What do you think the state needs to be doing to continue to attract some of these new areas? And, conversely, what do you see the opportunities for expanding and improving what we export?
Holcomb: What must look at where we want to be in 20 years and that will drive our investments. We are in the homestretch of discussion on our budget at the Statehouse. The talks are speeding up as the days go by. This is where we talk about our priorities. I usually say, “What kind of state do we want to be in 20 years?” We better be addressing those issues right now.” That means we better be connecting to the world. It would be nice to have a direct flight to London, the launching point to the rest of Europe. With the investment we have cultivated with Rolls Royce ... we need to better connect to those markets. It works both ways. Direct flights domestically and internationally, investing in the Indiana Bio-sciences Institute, we need to expand this footprint. So it will require in this budget $20 million additional dollars … to make sure we have venture capital. Everyone needs to be connected to diversity in our economy. We are internationally known for our innovation and ingenuity and inventive nature. That’s what that whole State of the State (address) was about. Our roots are with pioneers and that doesn’t mean the pioneers you see on the movie screen, it means pioneering in the future, carving and forging your way through this thick forest.
McRobbie: Looking around this room, I know there are people who would enormously value a direct flight to London. How close are we to that?
Holcomb: When do you have to buy your ticket? I feel better with each day that passes. We don’t want to be the next Silicon Valley, but we want to invest with Silicon Valley on a minute-by-minute basis. We know that one flight investment leads to potentially two or three more flights, additional West Coast flights. If the state is willing to invest, then we’ll get some forward momentum. It’s not just London, but London is the most obvious, and Frankfort next. Indianapolis is the best American airport five years running. And, by the way, connecting the dots, the network of universities including this flagship and the network of airports in South Bend, Evansville, Fort Wayne, Terre Haute and Bloomington takes some of that heavy lift away when we strengthen outside our international airport.
McRobbie:  At Indiana University, we take seriously our students studying abroad. Now over a third of the graduating class on the campus has traveled abroad. Employers really welcome students who have studied abroad. What are your thoughts of the importance of that?
Holcomb: It can do nothing but help and many times it can be the difference maker. I spent three years abroad and it was an incredible experience, in the sense that what you learn is how to peacefully co-exist. You don’t just learn a new language, you learn a new way of life and all sorts of wonderful and different customs and local traditions. Most important to me, when folks study abroad for extended periods of time, you tend not to fear the unknown. It proves to employers that you can parachute into almost any kind of environment when you put yourself abroad and venture out. My living in Lisbon (with the U.S. Navy) led to me taking trips into Spain and further and further. I worked in a NATO headquarters where 16 nations were represented and you learn from all these different perspectives. It was just fascinating, listening to a Spanish admiral talking to a Portugese admiral about the good old days 400 years ago; talking about the events unfolding that day. Whatever the issue, you can learn from having many different perspectives at the table.
McRobbie: When it comes to the international standing of the state, do you have any thoughts on how Indiana University can assist?
Holcomb: As you mention, you’ve been on an overseas trip with the state and that will be encouraged in the future. I would love for folks to make the journey abroad, experience new things in life, but I also have thought about how do we bring that expertise back to the state? How do we encourage people who learn and listen? One of the great strengths here are the 5,000 students who come from somewhere else. That cross-pollination occurs. How do we work to get them to drop anchor here and stay?