Gov. Holcomb plays his first session hand well

The gold standards of first General Assembly success for a modern Hoosier rookie governor must be measured against the years 1973, 1981, 1989, 1997, 2005 and 2013.

Mining down into that history, Gov. Eric Holcomb’s first foray stacks up well against Gov. Doc Bowen’s tax reforms, Gov. Frank O’Bannon’s Conseco Fieldhouse deal and workers’ compensation reform, and Gov. Mitch Daniels passing Daylight Saving Time along with the creation of the Indiana Economic Development Corporation and Northwest Indiana’s Regional Development Authority.

Holcomb had two Republican super majorities to work with, allowing him to opt into some of the groundwork already forged on his 20-year road and infrastructure plan that had been championed by Speaker Brian Bosma and House Transportation Chairman Ed Soliday last year. Signed into law by Holcomb on Thursday, HEA 1002 will provide $900 million in new annual funding for state roads by 2024 and sees a $300 million increase for local roads during that time span. By year 20 of the plan, investment for state roads will come out to average $1.2 billion, with $775 million for local roads each year.

To pay for the infrastructure investment, the gasoline and diesel tax will both be raised by 10 cents a gallon and several other fees will be raised. Because the cars and trucks of Hoosiers have been taking a beating by bad, bad roads, the general public opted into the concept. There was little protest about the gas tax hike.

It came after Holcomb ascended to the gubernatorial nomination last July after Donald Trump nominated Gov. Mike Pence for vice president, then forged a 100-day campaign that he likened to building an airplane in the sky. Between July and November, Holcomb had little time to craft the kind of policy Gov. Daniels showed up at the Statehouse with in 2005. But Holcomb meshed with legislative leaders, crafted his “five pillars” of policy, then used his personal charm and deft timing to emerge this past week with the kind of victories that set the foundation for historically strong governors.

Holcomb’s emergence stands in utter stark contrast to Gov. Evan Bayh, who in 1989 found a 50/50 split House that ended up with alternating speakers and committee chairs and a hostile Republican Senate. Bayh and Democratic Govs. Frank O’Bannon and Joe Kernan each had to deal with special session during their first General Assembly sessions.

Republican Gov. Robert Orr found his first agenda in 1981 thwarted by the 1979 oil shock and 18% interest rates that hammered the Indiana auto industry and the northwest steel mills. Gov. Bowen rammed his property tax reforms through in 1972, with State Sen. Charles Bosma – father of the speaker – putting the plan over the top by one vote. Gov. Pence sought a 10 percent income tax cut, but Bosma and Senate President David Long, sensing it was more about his presidential ambitions than the welfare Hoosier workers, pared it back to 5 percent. Of course, you all remember how you spent your Pence tax cut, right?

Holcomb saw the road and infrastructure plan pass by wide, bipartisan margins. He also received a generous expansion of the pre-kindergarten program into rural counties.

“The legislature over-delivered,” a beaming Holcomb said at a press conference in his Statehouse office. Flanked by Lt. Gov. Suzanne Crouch, Holcomb vowed to “pivot and execute” on what he has described over the past five months as his “five pillar” policy plan. He said he had asked the General Assembly in January for the “tools and our new resources to govern aggressively.” He said the biennial budget “satisfies that underlying goal.”

Asked about his style, Holcomb said he “made it a practice to over-communicate,” though he asked Bosma and Long at one point, “Let me know if I become a pest.”

Republican National Committeeman John Hammond III said of Holcomb, “His sense of timing has been critical, when to decide, staying in touch with the legislature, giving them just enough room to pass things. He has a very deft touch on when to step in and indicate his preference. He does it in a way that is personal, not public, and he is considerate of the legislative branch.”

Both Long and Bosma praised Holcomb. “I really love the man,” Long said. “He respected the process during the last few weeks and let us do our work.” Bosma added, “The governor handled this session very well and will be a great executive.” House Minority Leader Scott Pelath and Senate Minority leader Tim Lanane both said that while they rate Gov. Holcomb’s first session as a “solid B.”

Holcomb achieved another goal, making the superintendent of public instruction an appointed position by 2025, replaced ISTEP with the ILEARN program, satisfied his social conservative base by signing a parental consent abortion bill, and made the state’s first inroad into marijuana laws, signing the cannaboid CBD law to treat Hoosiers with epilepsy.

Gov. Holcomb was dealt a great hand. He played it well.

— 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.

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