GOP’s Indiana sweep largely settles some state debates

AP File Photo
AP File Photo

INDIANAPOLIS (AP) — The Republicans’ sweeping win in Indiana on Election Day means Lt. Gov. Eric Holcomb should be able to stay the course when he takes over as governor for Mike Pence, who leaves in January to become vice president.

Holcomb’s election and the continued GOP dominance of the Legislature likely guarantees that there won’t be a rapid expansion of the state-funded preschool program or an extension of civil rights protections to the LGBT community. Republicans also grabbed full control over education policy by taking the state schools superintendent’s post from the lone Democrat who held a state office.

Here’s where things stand as Holcomb prepares to become governor Jan. 9:

CHANGES COMING?

Holcomb got his start in state government in 2005 as a top aide to Gov. Mitch Daniels and he cited that experience as giving him “a Ph.D. in good government.” So it’s not surprising that Holcomb’s transition team is headed by two other Daniels administration veterans and includes Daniels’ lieutenant governor, Becky Skillman.

Holcomb said all state leadership positions are being evaluated and he hasn’t committed to keeping Pence’s appointees in place after he takes office.

Republican House Speaker Brian Bosma, who will be serving as a legislator with his seventh governor when Holcomb takes office, said he expects Holcomb will be more like the hands-on Daniels than Pence. Pence had never worked in state government before becoming governor and sometimes frustrated lawmakers with vague policy positions.

SCHOOLS CHIEF SWITCH

Republican lawmakers frequently clashed with Democratic state schools Superintendent Glenda Ritz over education policy the past four years. They’ll likely have better dealings with Ritz’s Republican replacement, Jennifer McCormick.

McCormick, the current superintendent of the Yorktown Community Schools near Muncie, disagrees with some recent GOP policies, such as the current A-F school rating system based on results of the standardized ISTEP exam. She wants schools rated on a broader report card and also favors ending the state requirement that teacher evaluations for pay increases be tied to student test scores.

She’ll also be negotiating with lawmakers on replacing the much-maligned ISTEP, which is taken by more than 400,000 students.

TACKLING TRANSPORTATION

Significant debate is expected next legislative session about finding a long-term boost in infrastructure funding.

Holcomb wants to tackle some big-ticket transportation projects but hasn’t specified any funding sources. His priorities include building a new I-69 bridge over the Ohio River near Evansville that’s estimated to cost $850 million and adding a second rail line for much of northwestern Indiana’s South Shore commuter railroad, which is projected to cost about $200 million.

Holcomb hasn’t ruled out raising the gasoline and cigarette taxes, which some legislative Republicans proposed this year but Pence rejected.

Bosma said legislators will work with Holcomb on funding proposals, with one possibility being the tax-hike plan he supported that aimed to pump some $700 million more into state roads spending in 2017 alone.

“The investment magnitude will be extremely similar,” Bosma said. “The user fees that we use to fund that, we haven’t settled on yet.”

PRESCHOOL PRIORITIES

Democratic gubernatorial candidate John Gregg pushed for an aggressive expansion of the state’s current pre-K program, which was launched in five counties last year and sent about 2,300 low-income children to preschool at annual cost of about $10 million.

Holcomb also backs expansion, but with a slower approach. He said he wants to focus on opening the program to more low-income families. He hasn’t yet detailed the scope of any expansion.

GAY RIGHTS STATUS QUO

Holcomb’s election likely ends any prospect of state civil rights protections being extended to gay, lesbian, bisexual and transgender people. Gregg called for that step, saying it was needed to improve the state’s reputation after the national backlash over the religious-objections law signed by Pence last year. The Indiana Chamber of Commerce, a strong GOP ally, has also endorsed LGBT rights expansion.

Holcomb said he doesn’t believe the state has suffered lasting economic harm from the tumult and that he sees “zero percent probability” of legislators advancing an LGBT rights bill after a compromise attempt failed earlier this year.

Bosma said he believes current state law is appropriate since it allows cities and counties to adopt local gay-rights ordinances. “Rather than try to shove one heartfelt side’s agenda or the other, when there’s not some sense of agreement among Hoosiers on this, I think that would be a mistake,” Bosma said.