Gov. Holcomb pushes for pre-K funding, against cigarette tax
INDIANAPOLIS — Indiana Gov. Eric Holcomb altered his sales pitch Friday on a plan to boost a state-funded preschool program, urging legislators to focus on doubling the number of students helped after they rebuffed a $10 million funding hike.
The governor’s remarks are among the first substantial comments he’s made in weeks on several key issues for the Republican majority. He also reiterated his opposition to increasing the state’s tax on cigarettes to pay for road improvements,
The comments from the new governor come as the legislative session is entering its final weeks and lawmakers are negotiating a two-year state budget, as well as an infrastructure improvement plan and a preschool pilot expansion.
Holcomb has called for funding increases for the state’s preschool program for poor children. After the governor’s initial request for a $10 million increase in funding was rebuffed by the Senate, he shifted his position on Friday and instead called on lawmakers to find a way to double the number of students served by the program.
“How we get there, I’m willing to be open-minded about it,” he said, “but I think that doubling the pilot program that we have, in terms of number of students that will receive pre-K instruction, is of paramount importance.”
It is unclear how many additional students the Senate and original House plans would serve but their funding amounts vary drastically.
A proposal approved by the full Senate Thursday increases spending on the pilot program by just $3 million and sends an additional $1 million to a new at-home, online preschool program.
On roads funding, Holcomb said he’s open to the majority of higher fees and gas taxes lawmakers have put forward to fund improvements.
Both chambers included a $15 vehicle registration fee, a 10-cent gasoline tax increase, and a diesel tax increase. The Senate’s plan adds a $5 fee charged on the sale of each tire sold in the state and an increase in annual fees charged on commercial vehicles.
A proposal by House Republican to shift all revenue from Indiana’s gasoline sales tax to roads over time and fill the budget hole with a higher cigarette tax is not in the Senate’s version and is not backed by Holcomb.
He suggested that future revenue from an increase in the tax on cigarettes should be reserved for any health care funding changes from the federal government, which could affect, among other things, the state’s Medicaid expansion known as HIP 2.0.
“Cigarette taxes, in my mind, (have) more to do with public health and that discussion,” he said. “I want to focus the discussion on infrastructure and how we’re going to pay for our roads and bridges without combining the two.”
Tolling on interstates, though, will likely be needed in the future, he said. Both chambers’ plans provide authority for the governor to seek interstate tolling.
Holcomb suggested having that debate in seven or eight years — a move that would likely leave any final decision up to his successor, should Holcomb secure another four-year term. At that time, “we’re going to have to make some choices,” he said.
“We’re going to have to ask ourselves, do we want to raise taxes? Or do we want to entertain tolling?”