INDIANAPOLIS – Gov. Eric Holcomb proposed freeing up $140 million in funding for teacher pay during his third State of the State Address on Tuesday.
It was the lone surprise in a speech to Indiana lawmakers that delivered a strong statement on hate crimes and focused on a strong economy.
“We simply cannot just maintain our course. Instead we must throttle up,” he said.
Holcomb's administration proposed a budget last week that would provide 2 percent new funding for Indiana schools each of the next two years. That money would be distributed through the tuition support formula and up to districts how to use it.
Some criticized the fact that no money was specifically identified to increase teacher pay.
But Holcomb was hiding an ace in the hole – the state will funnel new money into teacher pension liabilities that would otherwise be borne by local districts.
“Just like paying off your mortgage frees up money in your personal budget, this state investment will save all local schools $140 million over the biennium,” he said. “I believe local school districts should allocate 100 percent of this $140 million to increasing teacher paychecks.”
A rough estimate is that the money could mean $1,000 for each teacher but would vary greatly district to district.
Holcomb also established the Next Level Teacher Pay Commission to set a goal of a competitive teacher wage and examine all state, federal and local dollars in the education system that could help reach that.
Recommendations from that five-member group would be ready for the 2021 legislative session.
“I'll bet everyone here had a teacher who had a profound impact on your life. I've had several,” Holcomb said. “One way to attract and retain some of those teachers is to make teacher pay more competitive.”
The proposal led to a standing ovation from lawmakers on both sides of the aisle.
House Democratic Leader Phil GiaQuinta said Holcomb's creative idea shows “if we want to find money it's there.”
Holcomb also took a few minutes to stress the importance of Indiana adopting a bias crimes bill that would allow judges to stiffen penalties when a crime is committed against a person because of who they are.
Indiana is one of only five states without such a law, which generally includes protected classes such as race, religion and sexual orientation. But Republican lawmakers have balked at such an idea – especially the latter two categories.
Holcomb said businesses care about this issue but that it's about more than business – it's about people's dignity.
“Standing strong against targeted violence motivated to instill fear against an entire group is the right thing to do,” he said. “So let's strengthen our state laws by ensuring judges can sentence more severely when a group is targeted, even though there may be only one actual victim.”
Democrats moved to their feet quickly with some Republicans following suit. But some GOP lawmakers sat stone-faced and didn't clap.
House Speaker Brian Bosma said bias crimes is less of an issue in rural areas and 70 percent of the Republican caucus comes from rural Indiana.
He also praised a bill that would decline to name specific protected classes as a “good compromise.” But there are legal concerns about the legislation that would allow aggravated sentences for crimes based on “real or perceived characteristic, trait, belief, practice, association, or other attribute.”
Sen. Tim Lanane, D-Anderson, called the bill legal gobbledygook.
“Why is it that we just can't say let's protect these people? Why are you scared to say we are going to include sexual orientation and gender identity? It makes us look bad. Like we're embarrassed or ashamed to use those words.”
Holcomb said Monday he prefers a bill that reflects a full list of race, color, creed, religion, sex, national origin, ancestry, age, sexual orientation, gender identity, physical or mental disability or veteran status.
But GiaQuinta questioned whether Republicans “have the will to follow the governor's lead.”
Holcomb spent time touting Indiana's fiscal climate and welcoming sailors aboard the new USS Indiana. He highlighted a superintendent helping mold Indiana's workforce and recognized Fair Oaks Farms in northwest Indiana for investing in the state.
He also spoke of an initiative to spend $100 million on rural broadband after constituents told him stories of kids doing their homework at Starbucks and McDonald's because they don't have Wi-Fi at home.
“Nothing against large coffees and Big Macs. I'm a fan of both. But all students should be doing their homework at home,” Holcomb said. “So we're making the largest single investment in broadband in our state ever.”
Both Bosma and Senate President Pro Tem Rodric Bray said they support Holcomb's plan to exempt military pensions from the state income tax. Lawmakers declined to move the bill last year.
But Bray said employers are struggling to find workers to fill jobs in the low-unemployment environment and this is one more way to attract people to Indiana.
“I'd love to attract some highly trained, highly disciplined patriotic Americans to Indiana,” Bosma said.