KOKOMO - Indiana Gov. Eric Holcomb strolled into Cone Palace Tuesday afternoon, wearing his signature cowboy boots, surrounded by a few aides and security personnel.
He didn’t make a scene as he ordered a chocolate milkshake from the counter. After all, it’s something he’s done countless times. Holcomb said Cone Palace is one of his favorite restaurants in the state. He always makes sure to stop if he’s close by.
After ordering, he made his way back to a corner booth for an exclusive interview with the Kokomo Tribune before heading over to Bel Air Events for the annual Lincoln-Reagan Dinner, sponsored by the Howard County GOP.
Holcomb took about 40 minutes to talk about issues ranging from his philosophy on drug addiction to calling up his former boss, Vice President Mike Pence, for one-on-one chats.
The following interview has been edited for space.
Does it still surprise you to think former Gov. Mike Pence is now the vice president?
“I met the vice president of the United States in college at my fraternity house back in the 80s. I had asked him to come to campus to speak, and he did. He’s kind of been on that (political) path, but to go from the fraternity house where I met him to the White House is quite a journey.
“It’s interesting now picking up the phone and talking to the vice president of the United States of America. What’s good news for Indiana is that when we call out to Washington D.C., to any agency, if it’s Indiana calling, our calls get returned. I suppose all the other 49 states and territories get calls returned, too, but we get instant return phone calls.”
How often are you on the phone speaking directly with Pence?
“It’s not often, but we keep in touch. But staff-wise, we’re in daily communication with one federal agency or another trying to get things done. If I go to Washington D.C., I try to see him just to catch up and brag about Indiana a little bit and tell him where we are … (Pence) pays very close to what’s going on in Indiana, as well as the country, but it’s nice having a friend out there.”
So you really do think it’s been advantageous to have Pence as vice president?
"Absolutely. I’m convinced of it. It’s not just the vice president. It’s been noted here recently that we’ve had four or five key people from our state government take an opportunity to serve in Washington D.C.
"I’ve been asked how I feel about the loss, and I say I’m ecstatic … Ted McKinney has just accepted the position as the head of the Department of Agriculture, and [agriculture] is extremely important to our state and every single county here. To have him at a high-level role focused on ag and trade is going to be good for us … All these people still have the same cell phone numbers, so if I need to find them, it’s easy. And vice versa."
Jim McClelland, executive director for Drug Prevention, Treatment, and Enforcement, State of Indiana, unveiled your plan for attacking the state’s drug epidemic in May. It’s a detailed plan with a multifaceted, comprehensive approach. What specific parts of that plan have been implemented, and have you seen any immediate successes?
“It’s still early in the effort to inventory and align all the different programs that are being created, whether those programs are in Howard County or Henry County or Vigo County. We’re in the early stages of collecting all that data. As we increase some of our treatment options and facilities, we are letting the data drive us to where our resources need to go. But I’m optimistic about the progress we’ve made, because we’re pointing ourselves in the right direction.
“This will be an ongoing effort, but we can never relax or think that because we’ve curbed one area of drug abuse that we’re out of the woods. We have a long way to go, as does every other state … But I think there’s a recognition now about the problem. Some people think drug addiction is a choice, and it’s on you if you make a bad choice. I don’t subscribe to that, and I’m sensing a lot of my colleagues – like governors in other states – realize that it is a bad choice, the first time you do it, but drugs today are so potent and powerful that they’re hijacking the brain. It’s not a choice after you’re addicted and hooked. You’re feeding something that’s stronger than you’re good judgement, and it’s lethal.
“To me it’s an issue of caring for people, and making sure they’re getting the treatment they need. Is that costly? Yes. But is this a problem like we’ve ever seen before? No.
“People want their lives back, but they need help. It didn’t take me long to be convinced you can’t get out of the woods by yourself on this issue, which means we have to have these pathways to recovery, which costs money, for sure, so let’s make sure we’re data-driven."
Indiana’s Sunday alcohol sales ban generated more buzz than usual this year because of the Ricker’s convenience store situation. The state legislature is set to look at the issue in a study commission. What is your stance on overturning the Sunday ban?
“I’m reserving judgement until I see the facts from the study committee. I concur with the legislative leaders who say it’s time to take a look at modernizing our alcohol laws and taking an overview of it and not just having a hodge-podge approach. I’m encouraged by that. I’m convinced that Ricker’s behaved within the law … but they received attention for something that has been percolating and changing over decades and decades.
"Having said that, alcohol is a controlled substance, so we need to make sure that, whatever change we make, we as a state are all on the same page and that we’re able to effectively control that substance. That’s why I’m encouraged that the leadership has said let’s do this, let’s do it right and let the facts lead to the solution."
Do you think there is any reasonable argument to keep the ban in place?
"The argument is that over time, we as a state have issued different permits for different venues. So how do you change all that during what some businesses would consider the middle of the game? How do you change the rules?
"Someone spends thousands of dollars on a permit, and another person doesn’t because they’re selling different products, and they’ve created a viable business doing that. So how we approach it will be extremely important. When you start to change the rules in the way people do business, then you need to be very thoughtful and very transparent. You need have your motives on the table, and the strength of your argument should carry the day."
My understanding is the new gas tax which was recently implemented was originally earmarked exclusively for road spending, but legislation has now opened that up so it can be spent on a much larger gamut of things.
“The senate pointed to all the uncertainty about what was going to happen or not happen in terms of the Affordable Care Act and if, all of a sudden, two years from now or six years from now, we were receiving fewer federal dollars, how would we make up for that difference, and not have to raise taxes or not have to kick people off the rolls?
“The senate was very mindful of cyclical economies. Right now, things are very good, all things considered. We are very healthy financially. But if we hit a national downturn, we need to make sure we don’t return to the days when we’re delaying payments to our schools or universities. Their thought was prudent, so the senate, the house, and myself all agreed to that measure if we hit a severe downturn or if the ACA changes in such a dramatic way that we had to make up for a loss of federal dollars.”
So it’s kind of there for a cautionary, worst-case scenario?
“That’s right. It was kind of an insurance policy, in case something catastrophic happened so we would be able to weather the storm … We want to have a rainy day fund that is truly for a rainy day. It truly was a cautionary step that we’ll hopefully never have to use.”