Governor to discuss teacher pay in speech

Indiana Gov. Eric Holcomb, left, shakes hands with Speaker of the House Brian Bosma, R-Indianapolis, after signing the state’s budget bill in April at the Statehouse in Indianapolis. The governor is scheduled to deliver his State of the State address on Tuesday. 

INDIANAPOLIS — Indiana Gov. Eric Holcomb is expected to talk during his annual State of the State speech Tuesday about a possible additional boost in school funding – just not one that would happen this year.

Holcomb is set to speak at 7 p.m. before a joint session of the Indiana House and Senate, nearly two months after several thousand teachers joined a boisterous Statehouse rally calling for better pay and more respect from the Republican-dominated state government.

The governor and other top state officials haven’t given any details of what he might propose, however Holcomb told reporters last week to “stay tuned” for his speech after being asked whether teacher pay action was possible with state tax revenues growing faster than expected.

Republican House Speaker Brian Bosma said he has discussed that plan with Holcomb and that it would “free up resources” in future years.

“The governor’s proposal is going to be outside of this budget year,” Bosma said. “He’s going to propose a future resolution.”

Holcomb and GOP legislative leaders have repeatedly defended the 2.5 percent per-year school funding increase included in the two-year state budget approved last spring and maintained that further steps regarding the state’s lagging teacher pay would need to wait until the next state budget is written in 2021.

Holcomb said for several weeks that he would wait for recommendations later this year from a teacher pay commission he appointed in February until his comment last week as the 2020 legislative session began.

House Republicans unanimously rejected proposals from Democrats last week for immediate action on teacher pay, including one that would have directed $291 million in unexpected state tax revenue toward one-time teacher pay bonuses. Republicans, instead, have fast-tracked a plan supported by Holcomb directing that money toward paying cash rather than borrowing money for several planned college campus construction projects.

Senate Democratic leader Tim Lanane of Anderson said more action “needs to be done and could be done” on issues such as the state’s lagging teacher pay and rising health care costs before the legislative session wraps up in mid-March.

“I’d like to see (Holcomb) put something on the table that we can act on this session that will actually result in pay increases for the teachers,” Lanane said. “He says he has a surprise. I’m hoping he will surprise me.”

Legislators are already advancing bills on a Holcomb-backed proposal that would toughen the penalties for stores caught selling tobacco products to underaged customers as they raise the state’s minimum age for smoking and vaping from 18 to 21 to conform with a new federal law.

But they haven’t yet taken up Holcomb’s request for a statewide ban on drivers using handheld cellphones as is already illegal in at least 20 other states, according to the Insurance Institute for Highway Safety. Indiana currently prohibits texting while driving, but officials say that law has proven unenforceable.

Bosma said he wasn’t sure about whether such a ban could pass this year as some House Republicans didn’t think such regulation is proper for government. Bosma described himself as a “swing vote” because he was concerned about how a police officer could determine how a cellphone was being used.

Holcomb needs to persuade legislators on how the ban would improve safety, Bosma said.

“Road safety is important and we’ve all seen distracted driving, so he’ll have a shot at that,” Bosma said.

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