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9/7/2018 11:21:00 AM
Gov. Eric Holcomb discusses school safety, tariffs and hate crimes

Carson Gerber, Kokomo Tribune

Indiana Gov. Eric Holcomb sat at a booth Wednesday afternoon at the Cone Palace in Kokomo, sipping on an icecream shake. His visit to the city followed stops in Peru, Plymouth and other towns along U.S. 31 to promote his new infrastructure agenda called Next Level Connections, which includes $190 million to make improvements to the four-lane highway.

But Holcomb also took time with the Tribune to weigh in on some of the most hot-button topics right now in Indiana, including the impact of President Donald Trump’s tariffs, his own push for a hate-crime law and the pressing need for more school safety.

Here are Holcomb’s answers on three issues facing the state.

(Note: Holcomb’s responses have been edited for length and space.)

Q: Companies, manufacturers and farmers in Kokomo and the surrounding area have reported the tariffs on steel, aluminum and agricultural products imposed by President Donald Trump are seriously cutting into profits. The Indiana Chamber of Commerce has also warned the tariffs could create lasting harm to the state’s economy. What would you like to see happen with tariffs, and do you think they are harming Indiana’s economy?

A: This is something that has been talked about for a long, long time. A lot of people throw out that phrase of “free and fair trade,” and everyone is for free and fair trade. We want to make sure that it’s reciprocal with us and our partners around the world.

This president is not blinking. He has said these agreements need updated. Many of the same corporate entities have said that for years and years as well. For instance, NAFTA has gone on for a couple decades, and is in desperate need of updating. … [The president] is playing hardball and hopefully we come out on the other side – and I think we will – and not just endure that short term change in the market. Hopefully, we can come out in a stronger position mutually with Canada, Mexico, Europe, China, Japan and Asia.

We’re an export state, and we’ve developed tremendous relationships all over the world, and those relationships are growing every day. I want to continue to make sure that our partners know that we don’t take their business for granted and we want to grow that together.

The state of Indiana for more than a decade has really enjoyed a powerful brand. We’ve become known around the world as a place of certainty and stability and predictability. You can count on Indiana. Once we do get these new deals locked in place, that’s going to be very powerful.

We have an incredible American economy right now, and everyone wants to be a part of it. We just want to make sure when they are, it’s a fair and free market – both ways. I hope we can get there sooner rather than later, and I’m here to help on both sides.

Q: We have talked to farmers who are taking a financial hit because of the tariffs, but are saying it’s worth the risk and they’re willing to take the hit. It sounds like you have a similar philosophy.

A: My philosophy is sometimes you’ve got to break some eggs to make an omelet. These things have been going on for decades, and we have a president who is not going to blink. He’s going to hold out for the best deal possible for both sides. That’s just not being reciprocal. That’s respect. Our economy is growing, and we want more people to be a part of it, and we want to be able to sell to those same people at the same rate, so to speak. This needs to be done.

Q: You’ve called on legislators to pass a hate crime law following the anti-Semitic graffiti discovered at a Carmel synagogue in July. Earlier this year, a hate crime bill died after debate on whether to include protections based on gender identity. What kind of hate crime law would you like to see legislators pass?

A: I said very deliberately after the anti-Semitic graffiti that I didn’t want people to think this was the straw that broke the camel’s back. There have been a number of examples over the years that led me to believe that not just was it time, but it was overdue.

I think that it’s time because we already have in the law that we’ve given judges the ability to enhance these sentences. So why not clarify it and become one of 46 states with a hate crime law instead one of five without one. It’s a not stretch.

This isn’t about hateful thinking. This is about committing a crime. There is where this issue kind of got off track. People thought we were going to criminalize the thought and speech. It’s quite the contrary … Indiana is sending a message that if you’re targeted and a crime is committed on you, judges will take that into account.

Q: The last time around, it was the gender identity issue that was the hang up on the bill. Do you want to see that included in the new bill?

A: Our state employment policy since 2005 has included sexual identity and gender identification, in addition to the other characteristics. I’m comfortable with that. Legislators, I’m sure, are looking at what we already have listed in our code for state employment … and I don’t think we should be scaling it back. I think we should go with what we have and get off the list [of states that don’t have a hate crime law]. If folks want to consider adding to it in the future, so be it. Let’s have that conversation. We already have these protections in places allowing judges to take action because of a hate crime, so let’s just take the next step.

I can tell you there are folks who want to invest in states that are welcoming and who stand behind, by law, what they say.

Q: If legislators do approve a hate crime bill that didn’t include gender identity or sexual identity, would you sign it?

A: I think that would be taking a step backwards. … Let’s do this right. This has been an important topic for a while, and I think the time is right. If we can just get past that this isn’t going to criminalize thought, that this is about crimes committed, and then looking at that as an aggravating factor.

Q: So this isn’t a First Amendment, free-speech issue for you at all?

A: No, you can be wrong 24 hours a day and you can be hateful. That isn’t a crime. But it is when you act out on that and infringe on someone else’s pursuit of happiness.

Q: The working group you convened has recommended that the state improve student safety by boosting funding for security improvements and school resource officers, including conducting active shooter training drills at every school and expanding students’ access to mental health services. Do you think these changes should be implemented, and what other things would you like to see happen on the question of school safety?

A: Nothing can be more important than this topic. That’s why we put so much time and effort in reaching out and talking to so many different Hoosiers and listening to different positions from different parts of the state – urban, rural and suburban – to get all the different perspectives.

One thing became clear through it all. It was a common denominator. We are lacking in terms of mental health expertise that’s at the ready. What we’re doing right now is going through all those recommendations and saying, “OK, how much will that cost?” We’re going through the report and putting fiscal tags on each item so we can figure out how to pay for them, and who pays for it.

We live in a state where schools enjoy and appreciate local control. … There’s a lot of opinions on what should happen, but there was consistency on administrators saying they should be the ones making the final decisions on what to implement. There’s a huge spectrum on how they can secure the inside of their buildings.

So many teachers have told me they know who the potential problem student might be. But what do we do with that information? We don’t know when something is going to happen, but folks are rarely surprised by the “who” in these situations.

Unfortunately, you have to be prepared for the next time. You hope it never comes, but be prepared for it. Part of the preparation and prevention includes having mental health access for school corporations and local communities. How do you get people closer and quicker access to the help they need? And today, you need immediate access.

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