INDIANAPOLIS -- Republican Gov. Eric Holcomb said Wednesday that his focus in the coming year will be improving job training and fighting the opioid crisis, two vexing yet intertwined issues Indiana has struggled to address.
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, according to officials.
"It's the greatest challenge and greatest opportunity to keep (Indiana) up front, if we get that right," Holcomb said in an interview last month.
Some of his proposals for 2018 can be enacted without outside approval. But others, like his proposal to further empower drug treatment facilities, will require legislation when lawmakers gather for the annual session in January.
One of his overarching goals is for high school graduates to be prepared for a skilled trade, if not college.
"We've been manufacturing since we started, so why shouldn't we be the leader in advance manufacturing?" Holcomb said.
He envisions a state-funded effort enabling local businesses and schools to develop training programs that address regional job demands.
It remains to be seen if his efforts will amount to more than another reshuffling of state bureaucracy. Every governor for well over a decade has attempted to retool job training, with limited success.
Democrats were unimpressed, noting Wednesday that the state continues to be ranked toward the bottom in educational attainment.
"The scale of these issues demands a larger, more defined action plan," the state Democratic Party said in a statement. "Governor Holcomb appears to be nibbling along the edges rather than implementing bold policy to meet these challenges."
Experts agree there's a lot riding on getting it right.
That's bolstered by a 2015 Lumina Foundation report that found only 42 percent of central Indiana residents have the education needed for most available jobs.
"We are at an inflection point, like when we moved from an agrarian economy to an industrial economy," Jason Kloth, CEO of the policy advocacy group Ascend Indiana said last month. "It's going to differentiate the communities that thrive in the next century."
On the opioid front, Holcomb seeks legislation to lift a cap on the number of drug rehab facilities that offer medication-based treatment, which can help addicts cope with withdrawal. Currently there are 13 such clinics, officials say. But ideally, he wants enough facilities so that no one would face more than an hour's drive.
Holcomb also wants county coroners to conduct more in-depth testing to determine the specific causes of overdose deaths. That could unlock additional federal funding.
However, Holcomb was much more reluctant to discuss divisive proposals that are expected to arise during the session. He declined to take a position on whether to end Indiana's prohibition on Sunday takeout alcohol sales, or the prospect of eliminating the licensing requirement for carrying a handgun in public.
He did shoot down a proposal to legalize medical marijuana that was backed by Republican state Rep. Jim Lucas and some military veterans.
"I'm trying to get drugs off the street, not add more," Holcomb said.
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