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January 25, 2014

EDITORIAL: Strategic incentives can help keep Indiana grads in state

Tax credit proposal a small, first step

TERRE HAUTE — Envision this group of people. Smart, top-of-their-class graduates of Indiana colleges and universities, with newly bestowed degrees in science, technology, engineering or math. They’ve got standing job offers from employers in bustling places such as San Jose, Calif.; Austin, Texas; Seattle, Wash.; Boston; Chicago; Atlanta and New York.

The grads ponder and thoroughly analyze those options, and instead decide to find a job and begin a career in Indiana.

Now, answering honestly, would you say they made the wisest choice?

The Hoosier state is a wonderful place to live, work, play and raise a family. Still, Indiana must address some lingering issues to reach the point where the response to the aforementioned question is an unequivocal “yes.”

Thousands of graduates have already answered with their feet. Each year, more than 300,000 students study at public and private institutions of higher learning in Indiana, and after commencement day, one of every three leaves the state, many for good. Those receiving graduate degrees depart more frequently. Why? The lure of bigger salaries is one obvious reason. Household incomes in 47 other states have grown at a faster rate than those in Indiana during the past decade. Yet, even if those dean’s list collegians receive a hefty offer from a steady Hoosier company, the towns and cities around those employers lack the activity and progressive lifestyle the graduates desire. Highways are bumpy. Some school districts are so strapped they’re cutting or curtailing bus service.

A sharp young woman or man with a fresh bachelor’s or master’s degree cares about such things. That’s why so many don’t stick around.

Now, imagine that somehow, some way, a thousand of the very best science, technology, engineering and math (or STEM) students stayed after graduating this coming May. And the same thing happened every May, from 2015 to 2016 and beyond. Hoosier incomes would rise. More diversified employers would set up shop here. According to trends in regions with large percentages of highly educated residents, improvement also would occur in public health, crime rates and leisure opportunities.

That “somehow, some way” needs a starting point. Michigan City’s Scott Pelath, leader of the minority Democratic Party in the Indiana House of Representatives, has offered a proposal to help keep 1,000 of the best STEM graduates in the state. It’s a small step, but a good one.

Though the super majority Republicans rarely forward Democrat-initiated bills in the General Assembly, Pelath’s idea comes straight from the conservative playbook; it features a tax break. He wants Indiana to let those talented products of its colleges live and work here without having to pay any state income tax. In return, they must continue to work and live here for five years.

Of course, as the grads are mulling their possible post-college destinations, a state’s income tax level probably ranks well below potential salary, access to trails and parks, nightlife, and the vitality of local schools. Still, the tax break would show these folks the state wants them to be Hoosiers and is committed to upgrading its communities.

In time, more will want to be Hoosiers, and Indiana will be their wisest choice.

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