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The Journal Gazette

Tuesday, March 15, 2016 5:52 pm

Pence gearing up for stretch run

Niki Kelly | The Journal Gazette

INDIANAPOLIS – From town halls and tweeting to news releases and policy announcements, there’s no doubt that Gov. Mike Pence has revved up his administration in the past two months. 

Why? That’s debatable.

"I think the governor is just governing. He believes that it’s his job to set the agenda to address the issues important to Hoosiers, and so he is getting out there and doing that," said Matt Lloyd, deputy chief of staff for Pence. "This is him saying he wants to lead."

But Democrat John Gregg – who is locked in a battle with Pence for the governor’s office – has another word for it: campaigning.

"I just know that we are closing up on three years of a four-year term, and it took that much time for the governor to decide he was going to try to do something," Gregg said. "It’s obvious that what he has done is kicked in his political machine."

Another option is that Pence is shoring up the base and possible weaknesses in anticipation for a fight over civil rights.

One thing is clear: Pence isn’t going down without a fight after a dismal first half of the year marred by a religious freedom fight that gave Indiana a black eye and polling numbers that have put his seat in play.

IPFW political science associate professor Andrew Downs said the governor has been more active in recent weeks and months. But he thinks it’s more about the office that Pence isn’t seeking.

"The fact that running for president is off the table means what he has to focus on is governing," Downs said. "That logically should lead to more proposals and more active governing on his part."

And here is a glimpse at just how active Pence has been:

He has been having community conversations – aka town halls – around the state since the summer, including one scheduled in Angola at Trine University on Wednesday.

In August, he found millions to address a major issue that he had been taking heat on for months – adding 113 caseworkers at the Department of Child Services.

Then he created a drug task force in September – after a drug-fueled HIV outbreak gripped a southern Indiana county for months.

In October, Pence found an additional $3.5 million for school safety after his administration cut the program just months before. The move followed a Journal Gazette report on the change, as well as a spate of recent school shootings.

Then the governor unveiled a stealthy, no-bid contract giving millions to women’s centers that choose abstinence and pregnancy support over birth control and abortions.

That came just hours before Pence was to address a major Allen County Right to Life event.

Gregg said the announcements seem to be about checking boxes for his re-election.

"He only seems to offer ideas following a crisis," Gregg said. "And even then, it’s half measures. It’s more about politics than policy."

Lloyd called Gregg’s accusations "cynical and not in line with the views of a vast majority of Hoosiers who appreciate their governor focusing on the issues that matter to them: jobs, the economy, education, health care and improving our roads."

The biggest headline grabber came two weeks ago with Pence’s rollout of a $1 billion, four-year plan to improve state roads and bridges. It was especially significant because in the past, Pence has held legislative proposals under tight wraps until December or later.

And even then, they often have been vague.

But his new road plan was detailed and comprehensive. It also came after a major bridge closure and being pummeled by the Democrats and unions regarding failing infrastructure.

Lloyd said the town halls have helped Pence understand what Hoosiers are most concerned about, and that was the case with the road plan. He said it had nothing to do with Democratic criticism.

"This was planned. This wasn’t something we just wrote on the back of a napkin across the street one day," he said. "It took awhile to put that together."

Gregg called Pence’s plan "basically like filling half a pothole," but the Democratic gubernatorial candidate is still working on his own infrastructure pitch.

When Gregg challenged Pence in 2012, Gregg offered a $3.5 billion roads proposal that relied on bonding and using a portion of the next-?generation trust fund to guarantee private loans that state or local governments could use to pay for infrastructure projects.

Some other elements of the plan have since been done by the Indiana legislature, and Gregg said he is working now on updating his proposal given the new realities.

He would rather talk about what is expected to be the featured bout of the 2016 legislative session.

Spurred by the religious freedom fight this year, many Hoosiers are pushing to put sexual orientation and sexual identity as protected classes in Indiana’s civil rights code.

This would put those categories alongside race and religion in protections against employment, housing and public accommodations discrimination.

But religious conservatives have pushed back, saying they shouldn’t have to support a lifestyle that is against their beliefs.

One compromise suggested has been to protect lesbian, gay, bisexual and transgender Hoosiers in jobs and housing but not public accommodations. This would allow businesses to refuse to serve someone based on sexual orientation.

"I won’t settle for anything less," Gregg said. "There is no room for compromise."

Pence, meanwhile, has been consistently close-mouthed on the topic since the session ended.

Lloyd said he has been meeting privately with Hoosiers on all sides of the issue. 

Pence told an Indianapolis television station recently that "what we’re considering is whether or not those two principles – the fact that Hoosiers don’t tolerate discrimination, Hoosiers cherish faith – whether or not it’s possible to reconcile those two things in the law. We’ll be thoughtful about it."

Lloyd said that on some days, the governor works more on the human rights issue than on any other state business as he tries to find a balance between religious freedom and equal rights.

"If the governor is trying to make the civil rights topic go away, then he has a problem," Downs said. "It’s just not dying. One way is to show a full agenda."

nkelly@jg.net