- Associated Press - Tuesday, January 13, 2015

INDIANAPOLIS (AP) - Republican Gov. Mike Pence heralded the health of Indiana’s economy in his State of the State speech Tuesday, while saying future progress depends on getting more students into high-quality schools.

In a speech being watched for signs that Pence might enter the 2016 presidential race, the first-term governor promoted his proposals for boosting Indiana’s charter schools and the state’s private school voucher program by directing tens of millions of additional dollars toward them. He also unveiled a push to add a balanced budget amendment to the state constitution, noting that Indiana is one of a handful of states without such a requirement.

“It really is a tribute to the public servants in this room that Indiana has adhered to that practice in recent years even though it’s not required,” Pence said.

He said adding the requirement to the constitution would ensure that “unlike Washington, D.C., we won’t bury our children and grandchildren under mountains of debt.”

Democratic leaders said Pence was playing to national politics and creating a problem that doesn’t exist in Indiana since the Indiana Constitution already prohibits the state from incurring debt.

“I guess we heard something today that is going to sound good for voters outside Indiana,” said House Minority Leader Scott Pelath, D-Michigan City.

Pence’s dig at Washington was one of many points sure to resonate with conservative voters. He noted that states have emerged as “a source of inspiration on fiscal policy, economic growth, education and health care reform” while confidence in Washington is at an all-time low.

Pelath said Pence offered platitudes and a “tea party checklist” but didn’t discuss the state’s declining household wages in his speech.

“It wasn’t about the people of Indiana - it was about grander ambitions,” Pelath said. “For that, I think it was a gravely missed opportunity.”

Pence told the joint session of the Republican-dominated House and Senate that the state’s fiscal discipline has led to economic growth, lower tax rates and job creation.

The governor’s budget proposal presented to lawmakers last week would increase school funding by 2 percent, or $134 million, in the first year of the state budget, and by 1 percent in the second year.

It would give $1,500 more per student for charter schools at an estimated cost of $41 million over the two years. It also lifts the school voucher program’s limit on per-student funding, which the Pence administration projects will cost $4 million annually.

Democrats, who are badly outnumbered in the General Assembly, maintain Pence’s proposals for additional voucher and charter school spending will come at the expense of traditional public schools. They also criticize his plan for spending some $700 million on building and highway projects but failing to include money to hire more child welfare caseworkers.

Pence has fueled speculation of a presidential campaign with several trips around the country and overseas in the past year. He has also taken steps to oppose federal government policies, winning the praise of tea party supporters.

Pence spokeswoman Christy Denault said details of the proposed Indiana amendment were still being worked out and it would soon be introduced in the Legislature. The proposed amendment would have to be approved by two separately elected Legislatures before going before voters in a statewide referendum, which would be 2018 at the earliest.

The governor touted the state’s $2 billion in cash reserves, which were largely built under former Gov. Mitch Daniels with a funding boost from President Barack Obama’s 2009 federal stimulus program.

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