Indiana Gov. Eric Holcomb pledged in his State of the State address Tuesday night to conduct a “transparent” review of the Department of Child Services, but offered little more than platitudes about an agency that his critics say is enveloped in crisis.
“In recent weeks, the Department of Child Services has been the subject of headlines,” the Republican said. “I’ll state right now: There’s no one who cares more about Hoosier children than I do, and I’ll do whatever is necessary to ensure the success of our agency and its mission.”
Later he added: “We’ll be transparent and we’ll provide you with progress reports.”
The address, laying out his vision for the coming year, was his second such speech before a joint session of the Indiana House and Senate. It came exactly one year after his unexpected inauguration to the state’s highest office after replacing former Gov. Mike Pence on the ballot.
But after a tranquil first year, his administration has struggled over the past month to respond to allegations made by former child welfare chief Mary Beth Bonaventura, who described an agency beset by service cuts and management changes amid a surge in caseloads fueled by the opioid epidemic.
Democrats have charged that Holcomb doesn’t grasp the seriousness of the DCS issue.
Regarding the speech, Democratic House Minority Leader Terry Goodin said, “As far as boldness and leadership, I thought it lacked both of those.”
Problems at the child welfare agency will test not only Holcomb, but also whether a state government re-engineered over a decade to comport with conservative ideals of limited government can address systemic — and often interrelated — problems that lack an easy solution.
Take workforce development and the opioid crisis, which Holcomb has made a priority.
Indiana workers, like in other Rust Belt states, have had difficulty adapting to the changing world and global economy. Wages lag and experts say many lack the skills needed for better-paying jobs. Meanwhile, a growing number of working-age adults are sidelined from gainful employment by addiction.
“Right now we have 85,000 jobs in Indiana unfilled because employers can’t find the people equipped with the skills they need,” Holcomb said. “This is the defining issue of the decade, and we don’t have a day to waste.”
Holcomb has pledged bold action, with much of the work to come next year. He wants to pay for programs to train recent grads and returning students in high-demand fields such as computer science, advanced manufacturing and welding.
His fellow Republicans who control the Statehouse, however, are a little more skeptical after spending billions over the past decade on similar efforts with little to show.
House Speaker Brian Bosma said the state needs to revamp its current approach, which involves “spending $1 billion through nine different agencies and 30 different programs and not moving the ball.”
Still, Republican Statehouse leaders gave Holcomb high marks for trying to tackle difficult issues.
“Some of the problems that have plagued us in the past as a state, we are getting those fixed,” said Republican Senate leader David Long, of Fort Wayne. “Gov. Holcomb is leading the way on that.”
While Holcomb already outlined his agenda for the year, he has been far more reluctant to talk about the issues that are expected to be dominant themes during the session.
Lawmakers are headed into an election year and GOP leaders have already cautioned that they do not have a major, overarching piece of legislation they hope to pass.
That leaves a vacuum that’s likely to be filled by hot-button issues. Among the proposals being debated at the Statehouse are efforts to legalize medical marijuana, eliminate the state’s handgun carry permit requirement and rewrite Indiana’s prohibitive alcohol laws.
Holcomb says he has opinions on those matters. But during a recent interview, he said he doesn’t feel obligated to weigh in unless they directly relate to his legislative priorities.
Since taking office roughly a year ago, he has ducked substantive policy questions about everything from abortion and gun rights legislation to federal health care policy or whether Indiana convenience stores should be able to sell cold beer.