INDIANAPOLIS — Gov. Eric Holcomb’s mind is on the money — money in the forms of business growth, economic expansion and community development.
In his 30-minute State of the State Address before the Indiana General Assembly Tuesday evening, the governor spent most of that time talking up the Hoosier economy.
The ongoing COVID-19 pandemic took a backseat, literally, relegated to a few brief remarks at the tail end of the address.
“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 said in his opening remarks. “Tonight, I’ll report on what we’re doing for our economy, our people, and our communities.”
As was the case during a year-end interview with KPC Media Group in December, Holcomb was most eager to discuss economic issues. The pandemic loomed in the background, shading some of that news. Culture wars playing out at the Statehouse this session didn’t warrant any mention from the governor on Tuesday in his address.
The governor opened with a highlight reel of economic achievements — conservative fiscal policy leading to $3.9 billion in the bank at the close of the last fiscal year, leading to $545 million being refunded to taxpayers; statewide GDP of $415 billion per year, up $58 billion since Holcomb took office in 2017 and rising faster than Indiana’s neighbors; unemployment at a 21-year low with 73,000 more workers employer now than prior to the pandemic; and population growth of 300,000 over the last decade and one of the highest in-migration rates among U.S. states.
Later in his speech, Holcomb touched on infrastructure, community development and regional development efforts including billions in road work, rail upgrades, water and wastewater investments, millions in funding for trails development and the $500 million statewide READI grant for regional development.
“Ladies and gentlemen, the state of our economy is Indiana strong!” Holcomb proclaimed.
While the economy is growing, however, Holcomb acknowledged some limiting factors and challenges continuing to face the state.
“So, herein lies our most pressing challenge. With more than 150,000 current job openings posted and a record number of new jobs coming, we need to ensure all Hoosier students and workers can, and will, fill them,” Holcomb said.
Holcomb transitioned to talk about education initiatives including increasing funding for K-12 schools, which helped more than 85% of school districts boost pay for teachers, with nearly every district expected to have salaries up by the end of this year, with a goal of a base salary for teachers at $40,000.
The governor also turned his gaze toward health topics — not COVID-19 for the moment — but other Indiana lowlights when it comes to personal health.
Now, as we strengthen Hoosier talent, we also must strengthen Hoosier health.
“While we’ve made progress in areas like reducing infant mortality, we have a lot of work ahead to truly be clicking on all cylinders,” Holcomb said. “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,” he said.
Holcomb also tapped Lt. Gov. Suzanne Crouch to lead efforts to help improve mental health care, with new strategies including expanding mental health services, rolling out a new “988” suicide hotline and working to reduce the stigma of mental health conditions.
He highlighted the state’s Public Health Commission, created last year not just to analyze and respond to the state’s response to COVID-19 but to look at all aspects of public health to identify weak points and make suggestions for improvements. That commission is expected to give its findings this year, to allow legislators to pick up and take action on it in 2023.
Only at the tail end of Tuesday’s speech did Holcomb touch on the ongoing COVID-19 pandemic, amid the state at all-time record highs for cases, hospitalizations and more than 19,000 deaths since March 2020.
Holcomb didn’t balk from laying down the cost Indiana has paid and continues to pay in nearly two years of the pandemic.
“To date, more than 19,000 Hoosier lives have been lost — more than live in Huntington, or Crawfordsville or Jasper,” Holcomb said. “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.”
The governor also took the opportunity once again to encourage vaccination, even while Indiana as a state and legislators have worked recently to fight against vaccine mandates that could help improve the state’s rate that’s barely above 50% and one of the U.S.’s lowest.
“I want to thank over 3.5 million Hoosiers who are vaccinated and those getting boosted,” Holcomb said to applause from legislators. “You are a big reason our hospital network hasn’t collapsed. We know that people who are getting vaccinated and boosted overwhelmingly stay out of the hospital, stay out of the ICU, and they don’t die. If you haven’t been vaccinated, I encourage — I plead — I beg of you to speak to your doctor and do so. I say this, even if you’ve disagreed with every position I’ve taken. Because I want us both to be around to continue to have those disagreements.”
With a thank you to health care workers around the state who continue to battle and struggle against a pandemic don’t die, Holcomb closed his address with a recap that once again focused on growth and the progress to come.
“Despite our challenges, this is a time of unprecedented growth, connections, momentum, and opportunity for all Hoosiers. This is our time, Indiana, not just for today, but for decades to come. And that my friends is what we’re doing!” Holcomb closed. “Thank you, and may God bless our great state and God bless each and every one of you.”