Former Sen. Donnelly visits Kokomo to tout American Rescue Plan

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Jun. 10—Former Democratic U.S. Senator Joe Donnelly and former Indiana Superintendent of Public Instruction Jennifer McCormick stopped in Kokomo on Tuesday evening to tout the local benefits of more than $50 million coming into the county through the American Rescue Plan.

The two former officeholders spoke inside Roger's Pavilion at Highland Park following a meeting of the Howard County Democratic Party. The visit was part of a statewide tour to talk about the impact of the $1.9 trillion spending package.

Locally, the plan is expected to give Howard County $16 million, the city of Kokomo $20.6 million and Howard County schools $20.3 million.

Donnelly spent most of his time highlighting other major Democratic initiatives on which he voted during his time in both the House and Senate, including the stimulus package approved in 2009 during the Great Recession and the Affordable Care Act.

He said that at their heart, those programs aimed at helping everyday people who found themselves in hard circumstances, and the American Rescue Plan does the same.

"That's what this rescue plan is about," he said. "It's about caring about people."

Donnelly also defended the spending bill against the most common criticism he's heard — that it is too expensive and included too much funding.

In response, he pointed to the tax cut approved by Republicans in 2017, which lowered the top corporate tax rate from 35% to 21%. Republicans argued the savings would trickle down into the rest of the economy.

"Let me tell you about 'costs too much,'" Donnelly said. "'Costs too much' was that stupid tax bill that gave money to our corporations, not a dime of which was paid for."

The non-partisan Congressional Budget Office (CBO) estimated in April 2018 that implementing the act would add an estimated $2.2 trillion to the national debt over 10 years.

"You here folks say we don't want to have a $300 check for this person because it will cost too much," Donnelly said. "You tell me what costs too much. The $300 that helps pay the rent or helps kids have clothes on their back and food in the refrigerator?"

McCormick, who was elected as a Republican in 2016 but has since aligned with the Democratic party, also defended the rescue plan, saying the funding going to schools is necessary as districts struggle to recoup from the pandemic.

"The money that is flowing into Howard County schools, into all our schools, came at a vital time," she said. "It matters tremendously, and its going to have a huge impact."

She said the money is allowing many districts to fund basic infrastructure upgrades, such as replacing aging HVAC and water systems and reconfiguring buildings to provide safer environments for students.

"Those are basic necessities, that our kids have clean air and pure water," McCormick said. "We're not asking for the moon."

She said the funding is also critical to boost perpetually under-resourced social and emotional learning programs at a time when Indiana has the third highest rate of attempted teen suicides in the nation.

"To ignore that problem that has been going on for decades doesn't make it go away," McCormick said.

The biggest advantage of the federal funding, she said, is the flexibility it allows each district to use on programs and infrastructure for each schools' specific needs.

"This is good policy that's loose enough on implementation that it allows space in local schools to do what we need to do," McCormick said. " ... With that flexibility comes a lot of responsibility to get it right."

Both Indiana Republican senators Todd Young and Mike Braun voted against the American Rescue Plan. Young called it a "bloated and wasteful $1.9 trillion partisan bill" and said only 10% goes toward COVID-related needs.

"We should not take advantage of a crisis to pass pet projects and unrelated policy wish lists," he said in a release.

Braun has said he voted against the package because of the extension through September of the additional $300 in unemployment benefit, which he said has disincentivized people from going back to work.

In an interview after the event, Dave Ford, who has served as a Democratic precinct committeeman for around 40 years, said he supports the American Rescue Plan. However, he thinks local residents should form a committee to provide oversight on how the city and county choose to spend the money.

"If you give Kokomo $20 million, and the people don't keep up on where it's going, that's a problem," he said.

Mike Kennedy, the former Democratic president of the City Council, said he also approved of the funding, especially for schools.

"I'm glad the schools are getting the money," he said. "They need it. But they don't need to be spending it on athletic facilities. They need to spend it on education."

Abbi Smith, vice chair of the Howard County Democratic Party, said the key now is to provide oversight on how local elected officials spend the money to ensure it goes to the right places.

"What do we want our future to look like?" she said. "It is our job to hold them accountable."

Carson Gerber can be reached at 765-854-6739, carson.gerber@kokomotribune.com or on Twitter @carsongerber1.

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