Indiana Gov. Mike Pence held close to a carefully scripted message for 2014 during his second State of the State address, prodding lawmakers for a business tax cut and education items while asking them to take action on a controversial marriage amendment this year.
Pence offered little in the way of new details Tuesday night, sticking to what has become a defining hands-off approach with lawmakers and his legislative agenda. Instead, he asked them for a second year largely focused on continuing the same strategy of cutting taxes and expanding sweeping education changes.
"We've made progress in jobs and schools, but with still too many Hoosiers out of work," Pence said. "With our state lagging behind in per-capita income and health and too many kids in underperforming schools, I believe we must remain relentless, bold and ambitious to keep our state moving forward."
Although Pence left a proposed constitutional ban on gay marriage out of his formal agenda, he asked lawmakers to put the issue to rest in 2014.
"Let's have a debate worthy of our people with civility and respect. Let's protect the rights of Hoosier employers to hire who they want and provide them with benefits that they earn. And then let's resolve this issue this year once and for all," he said, to applause from the assembled lawmakers, a majority of whom are fellow Republicans.
Pence spoke before a joint session of House and Senate members held in the House chamber. Just one day earlier in the same space, a key House panel delayed a vote on the marriage amendment following hours of emotional testimony on the issue.
Lawmakers first approved the proposed constitutional ban in 2011. It must pass again this year to be put to voters in November. If lawmakers don't act, the process of amending the constitution would start from scratch.
House Minority Leader Scott Pelath, D-Michigan City, said Pence had a chance to "douse the flames" on the gay marriage debate, but did not. Instead, Pelath said, the governor seemed more concerned about protecting his political career — noting the marriage issue could cloud his chances if it shows up with him on a potential 2016 ballot.
"He wants finality before the 2016 election. That's what he really means," he said.
Pelath criticized Pence for offering "small, symbolic solutions" to real problems such as low wages and unemployment.
"Mike Pence believes a governor should do very little, and he's succeeding," Pelath said after the speech. "His solutions are simply not equal to the tasks ahead."
Pence asked lawmakers to support his plans to phase out the state's business personal property tax, expand charter schools, launch a new scholarship program allowing low-income children to attend preschool and create a tax credit to promote adoption.
The General Assembly's top Republicans — House Speaker Brian Bosma and Senate President Pro Tem David Long — sung the governor's praises during a news conference following the speech. Both oversee supermajorities of Republicans in their respective chambers.
"It was confirmation for my team that we have a lot of the same goals," Bosma said. "Really all of us have the same goals. But we're pointed in the same direction on some of those solutions as well, with road funding and focus on early childhood education, continued smart tax reform and worker training."
Pence made no direct mention of the tensions this past fall involving Democratic schools Superintendent Glenda Ritz, his office and the members of the State Board of Education. Instead he thanked Ritz and the board members, and led a standing ovation for Ritz.
But in describing the state's educational gains, he noted, "Working together, we've accomplished a lot."
He emphasized that cooperative spirit again as he closed with the story of Nathan Woessner, a 6-year-old who was pulled safely from a Lake Michigan sand dune last summer after hours of furious digging by roughly 140 people. Pence noted that when he called the boy's father at the hospital, Gary Woessner referred to Nathan's rescue as "everyone's miracle."
"We are strong people and good people, but we are never stronger than when we work together," he said.