Holcomb lays out vision for interstate, county

One of Gov. Eric Holcomb’s top priorities as he sets his sights on another four years is completing Interstate 69, which has long been discussed locally and will have a significant impact on Johnson County.

He wants the highway to be complete by the time his second term would end in 2024, three years sooner than expected, Holcomb said recently during a campaign stop at the Daily Journal in Franklin.

Holcomb was elected as Indiana’s governor in 2016 following a 106-day campaign after President Donald Trump plucked then-Gov. Mike Pence to be his vice president.

In the last three years, Holcomb has raised significant funds, including more than $6 million for his own campaign. He has championed increased teacher pay, adding more than $1 billion to the K-12 education budget, including a record $763 million this year. In addition, he made changes to various departments, most notably the Department of Child Services, and ramped up progress on major road projects, such as I-69.

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The significant progress that has been made on Interstate 69 since 2017 is one of his major selling points.

Section 5, which runs from Bloomington to Martinsville, is done after years of sitting at a standstill, and INDOT is gearing up to start construction on Section 6, the last and most costly section which will run through the Bargersville and Center Grove areas and connect to Interstate 465 on Indianapolis’s southwest side.

“I-69 has been talked about since before I was born, and the need to finish that missing link here in the state of Indiana,” Holcomb said.

Section 5 was completed it in about a year, and Holcomb gives much credit to former Franklin Mayor Joe McGuinness, who is now the commissioner of INDOT. 

“Franklin’s loss was Indiana’s gain,” Holcomb said, referring to McGuinness leaving the mayor job for the state post in 2017.

"We made up time, because of our state employees and his oversight.”

Plans to finish the multi-billion-dollar project three years ahead of schedule is significant in many ways and lends itself to further physical and economic growth locally, he said.

“It’s significant because it’s saving taxpayers money in the long haul, and for site selectors who are looking at an attractive place for investment, like Johnson County, being so close to the airport and major interstates, and then having such a high quality of life with great schools,” Holcomb said.

“This is an ideal location to grow, as a person, as a community and as a business, and that I-69 project is central to that growth," he said.

Holcomb considers Johnson County a leader when it comes to quality of place and life, he said.

“That is a box that, when we’re out pitching the state of Indiana, we’re obviously pitching our locations being in the heart of the heartland (which is) advantageous when you’re producing and distributing products … We’re obviously pitching our economy, very strong, triple A credit rating (and) low-cost of doing business,” Holcomb said.

“(But) is this a place where I want to live, work, play and stay? That’s quality of life.”

Every Johnson County community is equally important. The small-towns, such as Edinburgh and Trafalgar, are just as important as the larger cities, such as Franklin and Greenwood.

“It’s going to continue to be a big effort and a big push from the state to partner with, no matter how small, one-dot towns to big cities," Holcomb said.

Knowing the voters

Throughout his term, he has made it a common practice to get around the state and spend time with his constituents, he said. He is running on a platform of "putting people first," according to a news release following his campaign announcement.

“I always say I want to stay in perpetual motion, and it’s all in an attempt to stay accessible to people and to be transparent,” Holcomb said.

"We’re just doing more of what’s working, and I hope a whole lot less of what’s not."

He is most proud of the state’s record road investment, jobs and wages, more opportunities for all Hoosiers, including those who have been incarcerated, and more money for teachers and schools.

Just this year, he set aside significantly more money for K-12 education, and approved increases in funding for the Department of Child Services and Medicaid. After all that, the state is left with about 1/3 of its total budget for all other business, he said.

Surprise surplus

Last week, Holcomb announced a $410 million surplus, an unexpected surprise and the largest in state history. He also announced plans for spending those additional tax dollars, most of which will go toward capital projects that were already funded, such as new buildings at Purdue University, Ball State University and Ivy Tech Community College-Columbus, a new swine barn at the state fairgrounds and road improvements to U.S. 31 in northern Indiana.

“We didn’t want to spend those reserves on one-time investments that would be gone the next year, and then we would be committed to finding that amount on an annual or semi-annual basis going forward, forever,” Holcomb said.

Holcomb decided to tackle projects that had already been approved and budgeted for instead of funding new projects or initiatives.

“When we did the budget, we didn’t know it would be this rosy,” Holcomb said.

If they had known from the get-go the financial situation the state would be in once the budget was complete, they may have gone ahead and paid for those projects with cash from the state’s reserves, instead of bonding them out, which they did, he said.

“We’ll just pay cash for these projects, then we won’t have to pay interest going on 20 to 25 years, and we’ll save (an estimated) $100 million in interest payments," Holcomb continued.

“It’s a pleasant place to be, but it doesn’t make the decisions any easier. We had to make the most responsible, long-term decision we could."

By doing this, Holcomb says the state will have more money down the road to dedicate to more significant teacher pay increases and DCS improvements, he said. 

His goal is to raise average teacher pay in Indiana to $58,000. Teachers currently make, on average, $50,600, he said.

“That won’t get us all the way there, but it does get us moving in that direction,” Holcomb said.

School safety a hot topic

Locally, three school districts have brought public safety referendums before voters in the last year: Clark-Pleasant Schools, Franklin Community Schools and now Center Grove Schools. Voters approved two; the third will be on the November ballot. They all want the same things: More property tax dollars for additional school resource officers, enhanced security and technology and mental health counselors and programs.

The state has lent a hand as well with its matching grant program for schools that seek to make some of those safety improvements. Last year, the state awarded more than $14 million in grants to nearly 400 schools around the state. The legislature increased funding for that program by about $5 million a year for the next two years.

A concern is that school referendums leave an uneven playing field. But schools have made it clear they want to maintain local control and decision-making, so it is up to them to pursue a referendum, and it is up to local voters to decide if schools need the money, Holcomb said.

“Local schools have local control of their bargaining and how they want to differentiate themselves from other schools,” he said.

Still, Holcomb says, state officials and educators are asking themselves the same question: How do we make sure all schools are equally safe, while also allowing schools to maintain that local control?

He said they hope to have a more solid answer and plan by the next budget session in 2021.