Holcomb backs ban on drivers using handheld phones

Indiana’s governor on Tuesday threw his support behind a statewide ban on drivers using handheld cellphones as well as a plan to raise the minimum age for smoking and vaping to 21.

Announcing his agenda for the 2020 legislative session, Gov. Eric Holcomb also endorsed rolling back a new requirement that teachers must log 15 hours of professional development regarding the needs of local employers.

Indiana currently prohibits texting while driving, but officials say that law has proven unenforceable. Holcomb is backing a prohibition on the use of any handheld communications device while driving.

“When you’re texting, texting can kill,” he said. “That’s not an overstatement.”

Republican legislative leaders have already endorsed raising the state’s current legal smoking age of 18.

Holcomb said state statistics indicate 20% of Indiana high school students and 5% of middle school students admit to vaping.

“We are not blazing a trail on this front — increasing specifically (raising) the age to smoke cigarettes or to vape from 18 to 21,” he said. “We are just catching up. This is about an individual’s health.”

Three weeks after several thousand teachers rallied at the Statehouse, Holcomb gave his support to one of the top issues raised by the teachers unions — ending a new license requirement pushed through by Republican legislators this year forcing teachers, regardless of grade level or subjects they teach, to spend time learning about local employment needs.

Holcomb called for making that an option for teachers to meet professional development standards rather than a requirement.

“We are asking our teachers to take on a lot these days and to serve in other roles than teaching in the classroom,” he said.

But the governor demurred on taking immediate action to further increase school funding during the legislative session that starts in early January. He said the new two-year state budget adopted by the Republican-dominated Legislature in April provided a “significant” funding boost for schools, even though critics faulted the 2.5% increase as barely meeting inflation.

Holcomb maintained that he would wait until a teacher compensation commission he appointed in February releases recommendations for lawmakers to consider during their 2021 budget-writing session.

“We will be able to see just how far we have to go and how much progress we’ve made,” he said.

Democrats and teachers union leaders have argued that some $300 million from higher-than-anticipated state tax collections this year should go toward school funding, and that the state’s $2 billion in cash reserves could also be tapped.

The Indiana Senate’s top Democrat called Holcomb’s education proposals “nothing short of disappointing.”

“He has vowed to continue kicking the can down the road on the issue of teacher salaries and have them wait until 2021 for any sort of answers, good or bad,” said Senate Minority Leader Tim Lanane of Anderson. “Statehouse Republicans have no reason not to address low teacher salaries this year. The persistent excuse that this is not a budget year is misleading and a way to deflect the public.”

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