By TOM LoBIANCO
Gov. Mike Pence used his first State of the State address Tuesday night to lobby for a personal income tax cut, an expansion of Indiana’s school voucher system and improved vocational training.
The new Republican governor highlighted the stories of three families he said showed the need to expand Indiana’s 2011 schools overhaul, improve veterans services and refocus the state’s education and business communities on the vocational training.
“We can put Hoosiers back to work and make Indiana first — first in job creation, first in education and first in quality of life,” he said.
Pence, who took office last week, offered little new in terms of what he will seek in his first year in office, instead using his speech before a joint session of the Indiana House and Senate to lobby for an austere state budget built around a 10 percent cut in the state’s personal income tax. That would reduce the income tax rate from 3.4 percent to 3.06 percent.
Pence was firm about the potential loss of $500 million a year in tax revenue. “Let’s be honest with our fellow Hoosiers: We can afford to do this,” he said.
The GOP holds overwhelming majorities in both the House and Senate. Republican leaders, however, have expressed skepticism at the idea of putting a tax cut ahead of school spending following years of education cuts.
They are more likely to welcome Pence’s call for expanded school vouchers and new jobs training.
Democratic leaders praised Pence for his speech and thanked him for including some of their priorities in his first-year agenda, including a promise to send more state contracts to veteran-owned businesses. But they said they expected more from him, specifically on how he would create jobs.
“I think what I was looking for in the speech is what exactly are going to be the details in reaching [solutions to] those problems that we are dealing with as Hoosiers,” said Senate Minority Leader Tim Lanane, D-Anderson. “I think I was hoping for a bit more of a bolder approach in terms of ideas and resources to really empower workers to bridge that skills gap.”
The audience of lawmakers, state officials, lobbyists and Pence’s family applauded the governor more than 25 times, standing five times as they saved some of their heartiest plaudits for the three Hoosier families Pence picked to highlight his priorities.
Pence highlighted the story of the Rodney and Melita Davis family of Indianapolis, whose daughter attends the Trader’s Point Christian Academy, in backing a continuation of what is already the country’s largest private school voucher program. Pence called for the state to expand vouchers to military and foster families, along with special needs children.
“I have long believed that parents should be able to choose where their children go to school, regardless of their income.” Pence said. “We must continue to expand educational opportunities, especially for those with the fewest resources.”
Pence pointed to Bill Beach, owner of New Albany-based Beach Mold and Tool, as one reason to reinvest in vocational training for high school students.
Pence said Beach’s father told him as a teenager that his brother would go to college while he would go to a vocational school because he was good working with his hands. Beach started his company is 1972 and it now has about 600 workers.
The governor called for creating regional councils that would work with businesses and educators to tailor high school vocational programs to available jobs.
“Career and technical education can provide our students with a pathway to success, just as it did for Bill,” Pence said. “It can launch entrepreneurs, give kids a reason to finish high school, and create a well-qualified workforce that will encourage business to build here and grow here.”
Pence said former Republican Gov. Mitch Daniels and legislative leaders left the state in strong shape and that Indiana stands out “as a beacon of fiscal restraint.”
He also pointed to ongoing challenges, including the state’s 8 percent unemployment rate that has about 250,000 people out of work, and he called Indiana’s 20 percent poverty rate for children “unacceptable.”
Pence cut some sections of his prepared remarks dealing with school safety in the wake of the Connecticut school massacre and some sharp jabs at the federal government that invoked his political hero, Ronald Reagan. He said afterward he knew he was cutting it close to the 30-minute broadcast window allotted governors for their annual speech.
“I looked up and I think it was about 27 after, and I said they’re not going to let me get into ‘Jeopardy,”’ he said.
A look at proposals that were highlighted by Republican Gov. Mike Pence in his State of the State speech Tuesday night:
n INCOME TAX CUT: Pence called on legislators to approve a key campaign platform of reducing the state’s individual income tax rate from 3.4 percent to 3.06 percent. Republican legislative leaders have been skeptical of the move, but Pence argued the state can afford the estimated $790 million-a-year cut and that it would spur economic growth.
n VOCATIONAL TRAINING: Pence proposed creating regional work councils around the state to tailor high school vocational programs to the jobs available at area companies.
n PUBLIC SCHOOLS: The governor backed continuing the accountability system that has led to contentious A-through-F grading scale for schools and the state takeover of a handful of troubled public schools.
n SCHOOL VOUCHERS: Pence called for expanding the school voucher program that allows qualifying families to receive state money to send a child to a private school by removing income limits for foster, adopted, special needs and military families.
n HEALTH CARE: The governor said he let the federal government “dictate” health care choices. Pence, as a member of Congress, opposed President Barack Obama’s health care overhaul and has ruled out a state-run health insurance exchange in Indiana.
— Associated Press