INDIANAPOLIS - Gov. Mike Pence started working to steer two conservative agenda items – a personal income tax cut and an expansion of Indiana’s voucher program – through a wary state legislature Tuesday night.
He used his first State of the State address in front of both chambers of Indiana's Republican-dominated General Assembly to make a fresh case for his plan to lower the state's individual income tax rate from 3.4 percent to 3.06 percent.
He also urged lawmakers to revisit the private school voucher program that they launched just two years ago. He said they should scotch some of the requirements to access it, and he made his case for across-the-board school choice.
The newly minted governor's half-hour speech included calls for a new emphasis on vocational education, extra funding for child protective services and new agency-level efforts to promote marriage.
The tax cut and the voucher expansion, though, are his toughest sells.
And Pence seemed to know it.
He made a direct appeal to legislative leaders who have balked at the tax cut because it would drain the state's coffers of $742 million over the next two years – especially as Indiana emerges from the recession with extra cash available to spend on items such as K-12 education, public universities and transportation.
"Let's be honest with our fellow Hoosiers: We can afford to do this," Pence said.
He called it an effort to help small businesses as well as individuals who saw their Social Security pay roll taxes tick up by 2 percent at the year's start.
"This reduction in taxes will unleash half a billion dollars into the private, voluntary economy every year. Letting Hoosiers keep more dollars to spend, invest or save will be good for Indiana families and businesses," Pence said.
Senate President Pro Tem David Long, R-Fort Wayne, said afterward that a new forecast of the state's tax collections due out in April will be the key to determining whether Pence will get his tax cut.
"We're going to have to wait and be patient and discuss that," Long said. "In the end, affordability is going to be a key factor in this, and also if it's the best way or not to stimulate the Hoosier economy at the end of the day."
The new Republican governor's case for an expansion of Indiana's voucher program included pointing out a family he'd invited whose second grader is attending Traders Point Elementary School in Indianapolis thanks to the state's funding.
Right now, the voucher program provides at least $4,500 per year to students who meet the income guidelines to qualify for free or reduced lunches and who have spent at least one year in a public school.
Pence wants to do away with those requirements for the children of military veterans, those who are adopted or in foster care, and students with special needs. He also wants to completely eliminate the one year in public school requirement.
His proposal is part of a bill introduced by House Education Chairman Bill Behning, R-Indianapolis. That bill also includes a dollar-for-dollar tax credit for Hoosiers who contribute to organizations that give scholarships to pre-kindergarten students.
"I have long believed that parents should be able to choose where their children go to school, regardless of their income. We must continue to expand educational opportunities, especially for those with the fewest resources, beginning with pre-K education," Pence said.
Another bill that Behning has authored would launch a $7-million-a-year pilot pre-kindergarten program with the same income requirements as Indiana's voucher program. If those measures pass, they would mark the first time Indiana pumped tax dollars into pre-kindergarten.
House Minority Leader Scott Pelath, D-Michigan City, said his only huge problem with Pence's speech was the governor's call for "plunging the state headlong" into "Wall Street"-type competition among schools.
One Pence initiative – a new focus on vocational and technical education programs in high schools and for adults – appears poised for an easy ride through the legislative process.
He pitched a plan to launch regional councils that would develop high school vocational curricula based on that area's needs and job openings, as well as $18 million more for adult education.
Lawmakers said afterward that he was preaching to the choir.
House Speaker Brian Bosma, R-Indianapolis, said he has "no question" the governor's workforce development initiatives have momentum.
Ditto Pence's efforts to bump funding for the Department of Child Services by 7 percent, or $35 million, to complete the overhaul that agency leaders recommended and a panel of lawmakers endorsed last year.
"There's going to be a lot of consensus on some of these issues," Bosma said.
Senate Minority Leader Tim Lanane, D-Anderson,
said he only wanted "more details" and a "bolder approach."
Pence's speech was the first State of the State address since 1984 delivered without the aid of a TelePrompTer. He read from a prepared script instead – and did so in a hurry, due to interruptions for applause.
As he struggled to fit the speech into his 27-minute window, Pence made some cuts on the fly.
One portion he cut out included a reference to former President Ronald Reagan. The other was a call for a school safety review.
"While others have rushed to the well-worn arguments over gun control," Pence said in his prepared text, "Hoosiers know this is not about access to firearms. It is about access to schools."