INDIANAPOLIS (AP) — Indiana Gov. Eric Holcomb extolled the state’s economic expansion amid the COVID-19 pandemic during the annual State of the State speech Tuesday night while saying many challenges remain from the ongoing health crisis.
Holcomb’s speech before lawmakers gathered inside the Statehouse avoided topics where he’s facing disagreements with fellow Republicans who are pushing one proposal that would force businesses to allow exemptions from any workplace COVID-19 vaccination requirements and another bill seeking broad business and individual tax cuts.
Much of the governor’s address focused on touting the state’s economy, pointing to low unemployment and its large — and growing — state budget surplus because of a big jump in tax collections. But he was most personal when discussing the pandemic and “the extraordinary personal toll it’s had on our families.”
Indiana’s COVID-19 death toll since March 2020 is approaching 20,000 people, which Holcomb pointed out is more than the populations of Indiana communities such as Huntington, Crawfordsville and Jasper.
Holcomb described Indiana’s hospitals as “under siege” and praised healthcare workers for their efforts at a time when the state’s current COVID-19 surge has pushed hospitalizations for the illness to their highest level since mid-December 2020 before the vaccines were widely available. The governor hasn’t reimposed any virus precautions since letting the statewide mask mandate expire in April but urged more vaccinations as Indiana has the country’s ninth lowest rate for a fully vaccinated population at 52%, according to the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention.
“If you haven’t been vaccinated, I encourage, I plead, I beg of you to speak with your doctor and do so,” Holcomb said. “I say this, even if you’ve disagreed with every position I’ve taken. I want us both to be around to continue those disagreements.”
Those remarks came as House Republicans could later this week vote on advancing a bill that would force businesses to grant broad exemptions to any COVID-19 vaccination requirements in response to conservative grievances over government-ordered virus precautions. The state’s major medical and business groups have opposed the proposal — and Holcomb has repeatedly said he believed employers should have the freedom to make such decisions themselves.
Holcomb’s speech highlighted the state’s budget surplus that is triggering anticipated $125 payments to all taxpayers this spring under Indiana’s automatic taxpayer refund law. Holcomb has said he has an open mind about possible tax cuts proposed by House Republicans while believing such a decision should until a new two-year state budget is drafted in 2023 and there is more certainty about the economy.
The governor raised possible future expenses to improve Indiana’s public health system and help reduce the state’s high obesity and smoking rates and low percentages of childhood immunizations.
“Like everywhere else in America, our efforts to tackle addiction in our communities have been compounded by the pandemic and we’ve seen increased fentanyl use,” Holcomb said. “So we must double down to reach more people with substance use disorder and get them into recovery and back to their families, back to work, back to school.”
Holcomb also didn’t discuss during his speech the push by conservative lawmakers for mandating that classroom materials be vetted by parent review committees and placing restrictions on teaching about racism and political topics. Instead, Holcomb focused his remarks on education to the funding increase that lawmakers approved last spring that he said had bumping up annual salaries for new teachers to at least $40,000 in about 80 of school districts.
Democrats have criticized the Republican-dominated Legislature for its attention to divisive cultural issues. Democratic Sen. Eddie Melton of Gary said more attention was needed on tackling problems such as Indiana’s high costs for childcare and medical expenses.
“Folks are still feeling the impact of the pandemic,” said Melton, who is the Senate’s assistant minority leader. “When it comes down to the bottom line and their pockets, I don’t think 100 bucks alone in a refund is going to be the sole answer.”
Holcomb returned to the Indiana House chamber for the speech after pre-recording the televised address last year. He had planned to give the speech to a small live audience in the House chamber because of COVID-19 precautions but that was called off amid FBI warnings about protests in the wake of the deadly siege on the U.S. Capitol.