by Kathy Tretter
and state sources
INDIANAPOLIS – As 2020 was winding down, Governor Eric J. Holcomb announced his 2021 Next Level Agenda, which is designed to safely navigating out of the pandemic and emerge as a stronger Indiana.
“The 2021 Next Level Agenda is focused on making sure Indiana remains a state of opportunity for all,” Gov. Holcomb said. “To do that, we must manage our way through the world’s worst pandemic in over a century.”
He held a virtual press conference recently so media from across the state could delve more deeply in what he proposed.
The 2021 Next Level Agenda includes five pillars detailing both legislative and administrative priorities for the year ahead.
Cultivate a strong and diverse economy
Gov. Holcomb’s 2021 agenda calls for passing the state’s ninth straight balanced budget. As the number one manufacturing state in the nation per capita, the Governor will seek to enhance the state’s status by expanding Manufacturing Readiness Grants to enable companies to modernize their operations. The state will also stay on track to triple federal defense investment in Indiana by 2025.
During the press conference Gov. Holcomb noted the economic forecast for the Hoosier State is “relatively positive going forward.”
He was asked how important federal assistance will be going forward.
“Two words, very important.”
He noted the state and federal governments have been in partnership since the beginning of the pandemic and the federal government is providing much needed funding for the monumental effort of contact tracing and vaccination. The next step for this partnership will be focused on assisting citizens in need and will go beyond that for state needs.
Maintain and build the state’s infrastructure
The agenda was designed to enhance existing infrastructure and finish projects already underway. The Governor will grow his nation-leading Next Level Connections Broadband Program with legislation to better reach additional areas of the state that are unserved or under-served with higher internet speeds. The state will continue projects including I-69 Section 6, the West Lake Corridor expansion and double tracking the South Shore Line Rail projects, as well as the effort to plant one million trees across the state. Additionally, the Indiana Housing and Community Development Authority will create a comprehensive overview of our state’s housing supply.
Lt. Governor Suzanne Crouch is heavily focused on housing insecurity, particularly in rural Indiana. First a public-private partnership formed last March with Indiana Housing and Community Development will complete an assessment of what is available, including rental units and then develop a plan of action. One area of focus will be rehabilitation of rental properties throughout the state.
The strategy will not be one size fits all, but a county by county assessment and will take migratory patterns into consideration in rural, urban and suburban areas..
Lt. Gov. Crouch sees housing as an equally important issue to broadband.
Education, training and workforce development
The Governor remains committed to ensuring that K-12 schools receive 100 percent of their funding for the second half of the school year. He will also work to increase K-12 funding in the next biennial budget and at a minimum restore higher education funding cut in the last fiscal year due to the impact of the pandemic.
“Indiana cannot wait,” Gov. Holcomb said, when it comes to teacher pay.
Gov. Holcomb will continue to prioritize finding long-term sustainable solutions to improve teacher compensation. He will review and consider recommendations of the Next Level Teacher Compensation Report. Among the recommendations is a proposal to improve school corporation data accessibility and transparency by creating a website to allow for easy comparisons of school corporation financial, expenditure, and compensation metrics relative to other districts.
“I have talked to teachers who have pushed so hard for change,” said the governor, which is why over 50% of the budget will be committed to education. “We have farther to go, but I want it to be fact-based.”
The 2021 agenda also includes reviewing and reducing unfunded mandates on schools, retaining more higher education graduates in Indiana, and increasing minority teacher recruitment and minority participation in Workforce Ready and Employer Grant programs.
Meanwhile, investment is being made ($5.6 billion) to teach skills needed now in the workforce.
The Governor is committed to the goal of becoming the best state in the Midwest for infant mortality by 2024 by protecting pregnant workers by providing more workplace accommodations. Using lessons learned in the pandemic, the agenda calls for reforming long-term care services to be outcome and quality driven, and for initiating a comprehensive assessment of local health departments and state delivery of public health services.
Gov. Holcomb praised health departments throughout the state, saying “they have stepped up in heroic ways.” He wants to hear from them with an honest assessment of “where we are right now.”
He noted that 40,000 Hoosiers live in nursing homes and of those, 59% are on Medicaid. “I want to remove barriers that Hoosiers have and increase the quality of care in alignment with Medicaid.”
Deliver great government service
The 2021 agenda includes regulatory and statutory changes prompted by the state’s COVID-19 response, including expanding telemedicine services, making virtual meeting options permanent and providing businesses and schools with coronavirus liability protections. Additionally, the agenda calls for removing barriers for Hoosiers to reinstate their driver’s license. Having a driver’s license is essential to finding and keeping a job, and the suspensions have a bigger impact on low-income populations, rural residents, and ex-offenders. The agenda also calls for continuing to improve services and increase opportunity for the state’s minority populations.
“Responding to a global pandemic has caused us to rethink how we’ve done business and just as importantly, how we do business post-pandemic,” Gov. Holcomb said. “COVID-19 has shifted our course, but Indiana remains focused on what will make us stronger, with practical and people-centered solutions based on a foundation of civility.”