By TOM LoBIANCO
INDIANAPOLIS — Gov. Mike Pence used his first State of the State address Tuesday night to lobby for a personal income tax cut, an expansion of Indiana’s school voucher system and improved vocational training.
The new Republican governor was highlighting the stories of three families he said showed the need to expand Indiana’s 2011 schools overhaul, improve veterans services and refocus the state’s education and business communities on the vocational training.
“We can put Hoosiers back to work and make Indiana first — first in job creation, first in education and first in quality of life,” he said in prepared remarks.
Pence, who took office last week, offered little new in terms of what he will seek in his first year in office, instead using his speech before a joint session of the Indiana House and Senate to lobby for an austere state budget built around a 10 percent cut in the state’s personal income tax. That would reduce the income tax rate from 3.4 percent to 3.06 percent.
Pence was firm about the potential loss of $500 million a year in tax revenue. “Let’s be honest with our fellow Hoosiers: We can afford to do this,” he said.
The GOP holds overwhelming majorities in both the House and Senate. Republican leaders, however, have expressed skepticism at the idea of putting a tax cut ahead of school spending following years of education cuts. They are more likely to welcome Pence’s call for expanded school vouchers and new jobs training.
Pence was highlighting the story of the Rodney and Melita Davis family of Indianapolis, whose daughter attends the Trader Point Christian Academy, in backing a continuation of what is already the country’s largest private school voucher program. Pence called for the state to expand vouchers to military and foster families, along with special needs children.
“I have long believed that parents should be able to choose where their children go to school, regardless of their income.” Pence said. “We must continue to expand educational opportunities, especially for those with the fewest resources.”
Pence was pointing to Bill Beach, owner of New Albany-based Beach Mold and Tool, as one reason to reinvest in vocational training for high school students.
Pence said Beach’s father told him as a teenager that his brother would go to college while he would go to a vocational school since he was good working with his hands. Beach started his company is 1972 and it now has about 600 workers.
The governor called for creating regional councils that would work with businesses and educators to tailor high school vocational programs to available jobs.
“Career and technical education can provide our students with a pathway to success, just as it did for Bill,” Pence said. “It can launch entrepreneurs, give kids a reason to finish high school, and create a well-qualified workforce that will encourage business to build here and grow here.”
Pence said former Republican Gov. Mitch Daniels and legislative leaders left the state in strong shape and that Indiana stands out “as a beacon of fiscal restraint.”
He also pointed to ongoing challenges, including the state’s 8 percent unemployment rate that has about 250,000 people out of work, and he called the Indiana’s 20 percent poverty rate for children “unacceptable.”
“With so many families and businesses struggling just to get by, we have no choice but to remain bold,” Pence said. “We have to do better.”