Improving the vocational job skills of Hoosier high school students is high on the agenda of Wabash Valley Republicans in the Indiana General Assembly.
“We’ve lost a lot of the skills out here that Indiana has always been really proud of,” said Sen. John Waterman, R-Shelburn.
Improving Indiana vocational education was also a key campaign plank for Republican Gov.-elect Mike Pence.
“All these [standardized] test scores don’t mean too much of anything if the kids can’t do anything,” Waterman said. “It surprises me. Young people can’t read a tape measure, can’t turn a wrench … They can’t weld. If there’s a joystick on it, they can do that.”
Waterman, first elected to the Indiana Senate in 1994, said he has helped several manufacturing businesses launch in the area in recent years only to find vocational jobs cannot be filled locally.
“It’s been a shock to me as how our young people coming out of high school have been dumbed-down so much in vocational education and that kind of thing. Without manufacturing skills, your state and nation dies … A lot of times, vocational people can make a better living than what these people who are graduating from college are,” Waterman said.
Vigo County Rep. Alan Morrison, a Republican representing Indiana’s 42nd District, said he believes the Vigo County School Corp. is doing a good job with vocational education, but the state as a whole needs to do much better.
“Vigo County is doing a very good job,” Morrison said. “We could be a model for the state.”
The other top policy concern for Wabash Valley Republicans is the state budget, lawmakers said. However, until state revenue figures are better known and until the full impact of national health care legislation is known, legislators are basically waiting before proposing many budget-related changes, they said.
“I’m always a little cautious,” said Rep. Jim Baird, R-Greencastle, who represents Indiana’s 44th District. “My opinion is that we need to guard some of that [state] revenue to make sure that we can handle whatever [national health care requirements] may materialize to be.”
Bob Heaton, R-Cory, also believes lawmakers will act cautiously on budget matters for the present, despite Indiana’s budget surplus.
“Let’s see where we’re going from here,” Heaton said, adding he believes that also means the Legislature is not likely to implement income tax cuts in the short run, either.
“We’re in a lot better shape than most states,” Heaton said.
Despite having a “super majority” in both the Indiana House and the Senate, Wabash Valley Republicans said they expect to still work closely with Democrats in the Statehouse.
Democrats “are very relevant,” Morrison said. “I’ve had some great conversations with [area Democratic] representatives [Kreg] Battles and [Clyde] Kersey,” he said.
Other Wabash Valley GOP lawmakers agreed.
“I think that’s what this system is supposed to do, to have a healthy discussion,” Baird said, adding he doesn’t even like thinking of Democrats as being “across the aisle.”
“I think each one of those individuals in the [House] chamber represents 63,000 to 65,000 people.”
This year’s long session of the state legislature is off to a “laid back” start compared with recent years, Heaton said. Waterman agreed, saying he believes this slower start is allowing lawmakers to talk together more and learn more about each other’s priorities.
“So far, it’s really good,” Waterman said. “There’s a lot of communication on both sides. It’s a long session, but I think the information being shared by both parties and working together, it’s really working out really well this year.”
Despite being a freshman, Morrison, one of 25 first-term House lawmakers elected in 2012, has been named to serve as a vice chairman of the House Agriculture and Rural Development Committee.
“It’s been a real good learning experience already,” Morrison said. “Sitting over here [at the Statehouse], it’s just such a blessing and a pleasure. You get to see a lot of people’s lives and their issues and their problems and things to celebrate and things to fix. You really learn a lot about Indiana and your neighbors. It’s a special experience.”
Reporter Arthur Foulkes can be reached at (812) 231-4232 or firstname.lastname@example.org.