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Baird weighs in on State of the State

Thursday, January 13, 2011

INDIANAPOLIS -- Gov. Mitch Daniels wants a major revamp for Indiana's education system and he wants state lawmakers to act right away.

Daniels used about half of his 30-minute State of the State speech Tuesday night to promote his education proposals, including an expansion of charter schools, vouchers to help parents send their children to private schools and limits on teacher union contracts.

While Daniels also assured that he wouldn't support any increases in state taxes and repeated his call for eliminating township government, the prospect of sweeping action on education by a Legislature now dominated by his fellow Republicans was what he came to sell in the televised speech.

"When it comes to our children's future, the real devil is not in the details, he's in the delay, and 2011 is the year the delay must end," Daniels said.

State Rep. Jim Baird's (R-Greencastle) focus was on the recession.

"Fiscal responsibility is how we can prevail over the economic recession," he said. "We need to create a balanced budget and not raise taxes. Simply put, being fiscally responsible isn't the only issue. Hoosiers need jobs, good jobs, and we need to do whatever we can to put them back to work. The government's role isn't to create jobs, but to create an environment where jobs can be created. Hopefully by having a financially responsible General Assembly, this will allow for lower taxes and attract more jobs to Indiana."

Top Democrats in the Legislature said they could support some of the governor's education proposals, but they believe more focus should be on job creation at a time when the state has an unemployment rate of nearly 10 percent.

"They've got to recognize the problem that we don't have jobs," said House Minority Leader Patrick Bauer, D-South Bend.

Daniels has been mentioned for months as a potential 2012 presidential candidate, but his speech didn't include any apparent White House references, and he has said he won't make any political announcements until after the Legislature wraps up its session in late April.

Daniels has said he's excited about the prospect of Indiana becoming a leader in education. If he can get his massive education agenda passed, it also would boost his reputation nationally, said Ray Scheele, co-director of the Bowen Center for Public Affairs at Ball State University.

"One of the major underpinnings of any governor running for president is what has that governor done for education in his or her state," Scheele said. "This is a chance for Gov. Daniels to really make his mark with a reform proposal for public education."

Daniels invited some children who were awaiting a spot in a private or charter school and their parents to attend Tuesday's speech, using them as an example of what he says is the need for greater school options.

"These children, and their parents, have waited long enough for a better chance in life," Daniels said.

Opponents say vouchers would undercut funding for public schools and blur the line between separation of church and state. Daniels didn't give details on who would be eligible for the vouchers, although his administration says the plan is meant not to cost the state any more money.

He also took aim at teacher union contracts that he says go too far in setting rules beyond teacher pay and benefits.

"We must free our school leaders from all the handcuffs that reduce their ability to meet the higher expectations we now have for student achievement."

Senate Minority Leader Vi Simpson, D-Bloomington, pointed to funding cuts ordered by Daniels that have led to an estimated 3,000 fewer teachers. More than $450 million in state funding for public schools has been among spending cuts ordered by Daniels to keep the two-year budget passed in 2009 in the black.

"Education reform starts with adequate funding," Simpson said. "That means you have to put Hoosiers back to work and we have to make sure they're working at a livable wage."

The governor also renewed his call for the elimination of township government, a proposal lawmakers have rebuffed the past two years.

Daniels said lawmakers should eliminate the more than 1,000 township governments around the state and change the current three-member county board of commissioner system to a single elected county executive.

Beyond saying he wouldn't support tax increases, Daniels gave few specifics during his speech about the state budget lawmakers will craft this session. Indiana is in better financial shape than many other states, but Daniels has had to cut millions from state agencies and education.

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