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Holcomb plans on doubling pre-K

January 7, 2017 GMT

INDIANAPOLIS – Gov.-elect Eric Holcomb released details of his legislative agenda Thursday – including doubling investment in prekindergarten and changing the state’s schools chief to an appointed position.

“Heading into my first legislative session as governor, the guiding principle that shapes my agenda is to improve the lives of Hoosiers from all walks of life,” he said.

The Indiana Superintendent of Public Instruction is separately elected by the voters and runs the Indiana Department of Education.

But Indiana’s system is not the norm. According to the National Association of State Boards of Education, only 12 states have elected schools chiefs. Other states have a mix of appointments by the governor or state school board.

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Holcomb’s plan would move to an appointed secretary of education starting in 2021, with the governor choosing the appointee. That date would allow newly elected Republican Jennifer McCormick to finish her four-year term as superintendent.

Over the years both parties have at times put forth the idea of moving to an appointed position but it has never come to fruition.

Holcomb said it makes sense to make sure that key office is aligned with the governor of the state to implement a cohesive education policy.

“We have talked about this, and there have been various bills over the years. It’s time to get it done,” he said.

McCormick released a statement on the proposal, saying the decision will be difficult for the legislature, and she values the voice of constituents.

“I do not view this as a personal reflection of my ability or willingness to effectively work with the governor,” she said. “While I value the notion of a separation of powers between the governor and state superintendent, I fully recognize that the governor and state superintendent must work collaboratively.”

House Democrat Leader Scott Pelath of Michigan City said he sees merits on both sides of the argument. But he wonders if Hoosiers will want to give up elected control of a key office.

“People who tend to vote don’t tend to want choices taken away,” he said.

Also on education, Holcomb wants to expand the state’s pilot prekindergarten program focusing only on low-income Hoosier children. The program passed in 2014 serves about 2,300 children in five counties, including Allen.

The budget is $10 million a year and that amount would double to $20 million annually under Holcomb’s proposed budget. But it would remain in the existing five counties rather than be expanded to new areas of the state.

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“I see the need for it and agree with the need for it but I don’t want to go too fast into this. I do want review the research that’s still coming.” Holcomb said. “That doesn’t mean we need to wait. We can scale up … help is on the way but we have to do it in a responsible way.”

Other highlights of the incoming governor’s legislative agenda include:

*Allowing the state treasurer to invest money from the state’s $500 million Next Generation Trust Fund in high-growth, early-stage and mid-sized Indiana companies. The interest would still go to roads and bridges;

*Phase-in a $35 million pay raise for Indiana State Police troopers;

*Exempt Hoosier veterans’ military pensions from the state income tax;

*Limit controlled substance prescriptions and refills.

Holcomb’s 20-year road funding program was probably the least developed of his five pillars – noting several options that could be part of an ultimate plan. These include raising gas taxes, fees for alternative-fuel vehicles and new tolling options.

But he quickly said “No, that’s not my preference” when asked if he supports tolling existing interstates.

House Bill 1002 requires the Indiana Department of Transportation to seek a waiver from the federal government allowing tolling on existing state highways. It would be the only legislative authorization needed to toll all around the state in the future if the bill passes.

Holcomb also announced a new INDOT commissioner Thursday in Franklin Mayor Joe McGuinness.

nkelly@jg.net