INDIANAPOLIS — State Rep. Ben Smaltz found a lot to like in Gov. Eric Holcomb’s “State of the State” message Tuesday night.
Smaltz, R-Auburn, said he appreciated the reports on Indiana’s financial condition and Holcomb’s commitment to school funding, highways and state parks.
Holcomb outlined plans for the state’s Next Level Broadband program, as well.
“The additional $100 million I’m requesting will enable us to continue making progress, bringing improved speed to all corners of our state for all Hoosiers,” the governor said.
“That issue needs to rise to the top,” Smaltz said Wednesday. “It feels as though $100 million is an enormous amount of money … but it feels as though we’re dealing with a billion-dollar problem.”
Smaltz added, “This pandemic has absolutely pointed out the deficiencies” in rural internet service. “It’s very obvious that we can do better and need to do better.”
Smaltz asked, “How do we get that done in the short term and not the long term? If it’s 10 years, that third-grader or fourth-grader is graduating. How do we help them today?”
Smelt suggested giving incentives to internet providers to serve rural areas.
“There is a really good example of a project almost exactly like this, and it was rural electrification in the early 20th century,” provided by rural electric membership cooperatives.
With broadband, he said, “The REMCs are gaining steam with this task, which I think is very encouraging, but I think we’re going to need to help them.”
Holcomb mentioned that the CNBC financial news network recently ranked Indiana as having the best infrastructure in the nation.
“We have really worked hard as a state to improve our roads,” Smaltz said. “The roads are just so much better than they were. That was a tough commitment that we all made” by increasing the tax on gasoline.
Smaltz said he appreciated hearing Holcomb mention plans for future upgrades to U.S. 30.
“I hope the commitment is there to expanding U.S. 30 to a limited-access highway from Fort Wayne to Chicago,” Smaltz said. “What that would do for our regional economy, I’m not sure we can put a number on how beneficial that is.”
Holcomb said the state will allocate “targeted grant recovery resources” to hard-hit businesses such as restaurants, airlines, hotels and leisure industries that have suffered from the COVID-19 pandemic.
“I would add dry cleaners to that,” Smaltz said, because people working at home have not been wearing their clothing items that need dry cleaning. “I mentioned them particularly to the governor’s office last week.”
“I think the governor’s office in the state of Indiana is doing a good job, better than most” in managing the pandemic, Smaltz said.
Holcomb said Indiana has scheduled or administered COVID-19 vaccinations for nearly 120,000 people in the 80-and-older population, more than 215,000 Hoosiers in the 70-79 age group and over 250,000 health care and frontline workers.
Smaltz said he appreciates the dedication of nurses, doctors, firefighters, police, emergency medics, hotel workers, adding, “They’re tough Hoosiers.”
Smaltz added that he is “super-encouraged” by Holcomb’s report that infant mortality is on a three-year trend of improvement and at the lowest level since records began in the early 1900s.
Holcomb said that since 2017, the number of Department of Child Services cases has decreased by over 30%, the rate of children entering care has decreased by nearly 34% and turnover at the agency has decreased by 30%.
Smaltz called Holcomb’s proposed budget “a great starting point.”
The governor said he wants to increase for K-12 schools by $377 million.
“I was encouraged by his K-12 funding number, which I calculate out as keeping pace with inflation,” Smaltz said. “Compared to other states, we’re keeping up. We’re not falling behind on that number.
Holcomb wants to pay down $400 million on Indiana’s teacher pension debt.
“We’ve seen other states that don’t care for their pensions and their pensioners the way Indiana does,” Smaltz said. Illinois faces “crushing” pension debt, he added.
“I also like to see when a state pays off debts early. I think that makes us all feel good at home … because it’s a smart thing to do,” Smaltz said.
Holcomb is calling for new investments in state parks and the Indiana State Fairgrounds, plus building a new state police laboratory and Indiana National Guard Armory.
“It was pretty good to hear he has a commitment to our state parks and the state fairgrounds,” Smaltz said. “Those are areas that we enjoy, and they need to be maintained.”
Overall, Smaltz said he liked hearing that Indiana’s financial position is strong.
“Coming out of this pandemic year … with $2 billion in reserve, which has been absolutely integral to us as a state maintaining ourselves over the past year” is good news, Smaltz said.
“It’s very wise to have money in a rainy day fund that we can pull from when necessary,” Smaltz said. “It gives us an AAA credit rating, which is something many states would covet … it allows us to borrow money when borrowing makes sense and at the very best rates.”
As state legislators begin writing the next two-year budget, Smaltz said, “In Indiana, we have our differences, but we do work together.”