Gov. Holcomb talks state goals over sweet rolls
Traveling around the state, visiting its diners, cafes and buffets seems to agree with Gov. Eric Holcomb.
The self-deprecating chief executive is quick to point out that he “doesn’t miss many meals,” but there’s something deeper for Holcomb.
“We try to make it a habit of getting all over this state,” Holcomb says, seated at a corner table at Greencastle’s Putnam Inn. “I, by nature, try to stay in constant motion and it’s important for two reasons, I think. One, it keeps me informed on what’s going on at the ground level, where all the action really, truly is. Everything is local.”
It’s at precisely this point that Holcomb’s second point is delayed, but also illustrated, by a supporter from Owen County.
After graciously giving her a bit of his time, the governor continues where he left off, “Two, it assures that I’m accessible and people can do just what she just did and connect dots. Hoosiers are not shy about telling you what’s on their mind, which is a good thing.”
While this particular citizen interaction was simply sharing a few minutes with a well-wisher, they aren’t always so easy, and Holcomb is OK with that as well. On a recent visit to Hinkle’s Sandwich Shop in Madison the governor “sat down to get a belly full and I got an earful, which is good.”
“I mean this in a complimentary way — that’s straight from the horse’s mouth. That is unfiltered,” Holcomb said. “That is, ‘here is what I’m experiencing in my life.’ That is priceless to people like me, who are trying to organize an effort to make life better at the end of the day for people.”
Listen to Holcomb for a few minutes and it becomes clear that he takes these interactions to heart. He’s memorized a number of critical statistics regarding the state workforce — 400,000 Hoosiers without a high school diploma, 700,000 more who started but didn’t finish postsecondary education, 27,000 in the prison system, 3.2 percent unemployment — but he wants to know the stories behind them all.
“That 3.2 percent is about 109,000 Hoosiers who actually have a name, who have a circumstance, who have had an experience that has gotten them on the path that they’re on right now. How do we course correct? How do we help them? How do we give them the opportunity for personal growth?”
Rather than a series of handshakes and photo ops, Holcomb hopes his travels around the state help him learn some of these stories.
“They might say, ‘Can I get a picture with the governor?’ or ‘I just want to shake the hand of the governor.’ Well, I want to learn about you as much as they want to learn about me,” Holcomb said.
“I would learn, OK, 3.2 percent unemployment but what’s the underemployment number? Is this the second or third job this person is working? That, to me is a lot more important than the unemployment number.”
From there, it’s about taking the next steps and what the state can do to help.
“So, how do we get folks connected to the help that they need to go from three jobs to one and double their salary or triple their salary,” Holcomb said. “And all of a sudden -- boom -- they can afford to buy a car or buy a home and raise their family and not worry about daycare or a babysitter or the expense of that.”
From these conversations came the idea for the Indiana Workforce Ready Grant, which pays tuition for working-age Hoosiers at Ivy Tech Community College, Vincennes University or an eligible training provider, provided they are seeking training in rapidly-growing industries, including advanced manufacturing, building and construction, health and life sciences, information technology and business services or transportation and logistics.
“We need workers but we need them to be skilled up for those jobs that are just waiting for them that will double or triple their salary. And they’re all over the state,” Holcomb said.
More than 400,000 people have visited nextleveljobs.org to learn about the program and through it, 18,000 have been directed to training programs.
“We’re potentially going to be transforming 18,000 lives in the state of Indiana, but we have a long way to go,” Holcomb said.
That long way to go is a matter of awareness and access, Holcomb believes.
“We’ve got all these programs and we throw all these words out there but ‘how do I access that?’” Holcomb asks. “Maybe the insiders, the experts know all about those programs. But how are we getting them out for public consumption so that people can plug in. It is working so we’ve tried to simplify the navigation.
“We came out of this session with the tools that kind of restructured our workforce development system to become much more nimble and fast at getting the awareness out there and making sure people are also aware of how to access them.”
Holcomb believes these are great steps, but he continues to see evidence that there’s more work to do.
“The maddening part for me is, everywhere I go when I’m talking to businesses, they say, ‘I’d hire two more people if I could find the people,’ or ‘I’d hire 30 more people if I could find the people,’” he said.
As always, he takes these matters to heart.
“The issue that keeps me up at night is the health, wealth and wisdom of our Hoosiers,” Holcomb said.
Besides workforce development issues, Holcomb was also in west central Indiana on a somewhat related matter Thursday, looking at the state’s ongoing struggles with opioids and other drugs, as well as other problems that keep folks out of the workforce.
Following the ceremonial signing of opioid-focused legislation in Avon, he traveled to Cloverdale Town Hall for a private meeting with Putnam County Sheriff Scott Stockton and other area sheriffs.
“I just had some questions about mental health issues, jail overcrowding, school safety issues,” Holcomb said.
These police officers told Holcomb that many of the problems they face ultimately come down to mental health.
“Local law enforcement (agencies) are housing offenders for months on end before these offenders, who may be struggling with mental health issues, can be diagnosed and moved to the proper facility and get the appropriate treatment,” Holcomb said. “I’m all about trying to figure out how we shorten that time and ultimately save money because you’re going to be addressing the issue either on the front end or the back end. Many time, it’s a cycle. How do you break that cycle?
“Our state mental health facilities have to be part of the road to recovery for real people.”
Much like his impromptu diner visits, Holcomb values interactions with these local officials.
“Meeting with 10 sheriffs in Cloverdale, that’s where the expertise is,” Holcomb said. “Fortunately, in Indiana we have a very good state-local working relationship that’s built on a foundation of civility and deep roots that we share.”
Holcomb says now the challenge is to “walk and chew gum at the same time,” implementing programs from the 2018 session as well as looking toward what needs to be done in 2019, as well as that pesky matter of the mid-May special session he’s called in the General Assembly.
“There are a couple of reasons that I believe it is absolutely necessary. And, by the way, the legislative leaders agree that we need to tend to our business in mid-May.”
Among these are state compliance with the restructured federal tax code, as well as federal regulations regarding access to taxpayer information.
“There’s no controversy there,” Holcomb said. “We all respect our right to privacy, I hope.”
School safety is another matter to be addressed.
“We have to make sure schools have access to the resources they need to maintain the notion that our schools are safe and secure place for learning and growing for parents, for students, for teachers, for communities that have events,” Holcomb said. “I want to make sure there’s some consistency in the protocols. The state of Indiana is in better shape in terms of school safety. However, evil doesn’t take the weekend off and tragedy can strike anywhere. The best way to control what happens inside a school is to control who gets into the school. We have to make sure that the local law enforcement communities are working hand-in-glove with their school corporations and individual schools.”
Finally, there is the matter of finishing up the bills that came so close to passage before the March 14 deadline. While the legislature took some public criticism for failing to meet its deadline, Holcomb now simply wants to see the job completed.
“Issues were in the pipeline that were going to be voted on in the 12th hour and were on their way to my desk and I would’ve signed into law. I was very transparent about, ‘I support this. I support this. I support this,’” he said. “So that night, very early I said, in essence we’re going to put a few minutes back on the clock and we’re going to get these passed. I’m pretty confident we’ll do that.”
As for 2019? Holcomb discusses more of the same — more workforce development, more fighting drug abuse, more infrastructure and whatever else comes up.
“I look at this aspirationally as, ‘How do we take this to the next level year after year after year after year?’” he said.
Fortunately, taking things to the next level doesn’t preclude one from enjoying a local delicacy, which Holcomb did in eating one of the Putnam Inn’s signature cinnamon rolls before departing. The governor also had the good fortune of having a pan of rolls sent home with him.
“This place would be deadly if it was close to my house because I’d live here,” he said.