Gov. Eric Holcomb was riding shotgun in his black state-owned Chevy Tahoe Wednesday afternoon downtown when a pickup truck pulled up beside him at a stoplight. We looked over and the man gave him an emphatic thumbs-up.
My immediate question for evolving political realities: Has anyone flipped you off? “Not yet,” said Holcomb, though he’s realistic enough to believe that it’s only a matter of time.
The affirmation continued in a downtown Richmond McDonald’s, the rookie governor’s fast-food stop of choice. A small parade of folks came over to say hello. One was a Brink’s armored truck guard. Others were just regular joes who wanted to say, “You’re doing a great job.”
Eighteen months ago, the first Republican state chairman to be elected governor was a relatively obscure former staffer to former U.S. Rep. John Hostettler, Gov. Mitch Daniels and Sen. Dan Coats. He pursued a U.S. Senate nomination in 2015 and 2016, then was given a more conspicuous station when then-Gov. Mike Pence chose him to replace Lt. Gov. Sue Ellspermann in February 2016. Six months later, with Pence joining the Donald Trump presidential ticket, Holcomb won a 12-day, 22-vote state committee caucus for the gubernatorial nomination, then waged a 106-day, $7 million campaign in which he saddled on to the Trump/Pence wave to victory.
On Saturday, July 1, Hoosiers experienced a 10-cent a gallon gas tax increase. Holcomb signed on to what he calls a “data driven” 20-year road and infrastructure plan forged by House Speaker Brian Bosma and House Transportation Chairman Ed Soliday. But in the mode of Gov. Daniels, Holcomb expended his own political capital to bring it to reality. Conventional wisdom — since 1988 when Vice President George H.W. Bush uttered the words “Read my lips, no new taxes” — was that revenue increases can be a political death knell.
But Holcomb is banking on the notion that upgraded roads and bridges will be welcomed in this pock-marked state after years of Hoosiers losing hubcabs and busting axles.
During his first six months in office, the general notion is that Holcomb is off to about as good a start as any modern governor. When he appeared in Democratic Gary recently, he was widely cheered. When he finished speaking at the Richmond Chamber forum, he received a standing ovation.
Part of this is the contrast to Gov. Pence, who ignored the 1,000 displaced East Chicagoans due to a lead water crisis; refused to pardon a man proven innocent; who forged a bad state cell tower lease that was supposed to fund the state’s bicentennial celebration; and oversaw a misguided and poorly managed I-69 public/private partnership that has clogged the approach to Bloomington while littering the highway with car accidents and injuries. Holcomb reversed course on them all.
Holcomb may have steered through an easy stretch. The reason he came to Richmond was to sign four bills dealing with the state’s heroin/opioid epidemic. “When businesses put signs up saying ‘we don’t drug test,’ we have a problem,” Holcomb said. “When parents love their drugs more than they love their children, we have a problem. We didn’t come this far just to come this far. We have a long way to go.”
When I pressed people like state Rep. Cindy Ziemke, who has battled heroin addiction with her two sons, and with Katrina Norris of the Fayette Regional Health System in Connersville, this became apparent: The state is going to have to make a serious investment if it wants to get the heroin/opioid crisis under control in a five-year time frame the governor laid out. Not only are county jails filling up with addicts, emergency rooms are getting swamped, and over dose deaths are accumulating. Norris said that public schools are not equipped to deal with the coming wave of opioid-addicted babies. Ziemke said there aren’t enough treatment options nor is there the aftercare infrastructure.
As we drove across eastern Indiana on an at-volume I-70, barely going over 65 mph, I asked Holcomb if the General Assembly will have to grapple with the kind of investment it just did with the 20-year road and infrastructure program that will cost close to $30 billion.
“That’s the tide that’s coming ashore,” Holcomb said. “When you look at the percentages of babies being born who are addicted, that is jaw-dropping. We better throw everything we have at it right now.”
Is he willing to expend the political capital to find revenue? “You’ve gotta use it,” Holcomb said. “There will be similar funding challenges” compared to the road plan of the 2017 session. “I’ll be prepared to do that.”
There are no cost estimates of what the state will need, with Holcomb saying that before he seeks revenue, the data has to be “crystal clear what the investment needs to be. So this is a funding decision. Let’s have the discussion.”
There are hard days ahead for Hoosiers and their new, pragmatic governor. Thumbs up may turn into the rude bird. In the coming weeks, I’ll report more on the heroin/opioid dynamic, which is evolving into the cultural story and greatest challenge of our time.
It will test all of us, including Gov. Holcomb.
BRIAN HOWEY is publisher of the Howey Political Report, a weekly briefing on Indiana politics. Contact him at 317-506-0883 or at howeypolitics.com.