Candidates participating in Wednesday night’s candidate forum are (L to R) Stacey Donato, Laura Fred-Smith, Curt Nisly, Craig Snow and Kelly Thompson. Photo by David Slone, Times-Union.
Candidates participating in Wednesday night’s candidate forum are (L to R) Stacey Donato, Laura Fred-Smith, Curt Nisly, Craig Snow and Kelly Thompson. Photo by David Slone, Times-Union.
Candidates for the Indiana House and Senate took turns Wednesday answering 10 questions on a variety of topics from COVID-19 to teaching and health care.

The candidate forum, sponsored by the Kosciusko Chamber of Commerce and Kosciusko Bar Association and featuring panelists from the local media, included House District 18 candidate Craig Snow (R) and District 22 candidates Kelly Thompson (D) and Curt Nisly (R), incumbent; and Senate District 18 candidates Laura Fred-Smith (D) and Stacey Donato (R), incumbent. Democrat candidate Chad Harris for House District 18 did not attend the event, which was streamed online.

One of the first questions asked of the candidates was: In your opinion, how is the state doing regarding COVID-19 and the health of our citizens, and what, if any, changes need to be implemented?

Fred-Smith said Indiana started out doing a really good job, with Gov. Eric Holcomb showing leadership with the mask mandate and social distancing. However, since the state moved on to Stage 5, she said the number of COVID cases has gone up. She said she’d review the case numbers and have the state possibly step back to more strict guidelines if needed.

Nisly said, “The government’s response has been worse than the disease.” It’s a refrain he repeated throughout most of the night as he hammered down on the need for smaller and less government.

Snow said early on what Holcomb did was the right thing to do in terms with the limited information on the virus. As a business owner, however, he said it was very difficult to be shut down and he would have worked on finding a way to open the state up faster.

“Let’s be really clear: This pandemic came out of the blue, no one saw it coming ... and it caught us off guard. But I think everybody really intentionally tried to do the right thing,” Thompson said. She said she was “super happy” when Holcomb closed the state down quickly, but thinks the state may have reopened too quickly. “I think that from the beginning, we should have made it clear the benefits of wearing a mask. We did not educate the public well enough.”

Donato said she stood behind Holcomb. “In the beginning, it was a very difficult time. He was learning as fast as he could. Things were changing on a daily basis.”

A related question asked, “Prior to COVID-19, the economy was steamrolling in our areas with unemployment under 3%. What suggestions or actions would you support to ensure we return to that economy?”

After talking about having a balance among commerce, agriculture, medicine, law and the arts, Nisly went back to his earlier comment that, “The response to the crisis here has been worse than the crisis.”

Snow said what frustrated him the most was, “The way it appeared to disincentivize employees to come back and work. It’s probably not a state mandate, but if you want to incentivize people to go back to work, you don’t put out $600 a week or whatever it is today for people to stay home and not work.” He said that’s frustrated many business owners, including himself, to get people back to work.

Thompson said, “The truth of the matter is, I don’t think going back is ever the proper direction. I think that we’ve learned a lot, and that we all need to learn how to move forward in a most efficient and effective way.” She said of the top 10 growing businesses in the nation, not one is in Indiana. “We need to take a good hard look at why this isn’t happening. We need to ask them, ‘Why not Indiana?’ and make those changes because we can’t go back.”

Donato agreed with Snow that the unemployment dollars were not in the best interest of everyone long-term. She said economic development and broadband internet are two extremely important issues. She also encouraged everyone to purchase locally.

Unemployment money helped people for a short time, but Fred-Smith said there will be lots of people suffering and not going to be able to make ends meet long-term. She said a way for Indiana to move forward, like Thompson said, was to make Indiana a leader in new technologies.

The next question asked about the decline of the number of students moving into the teaching profession and if there was anything the state should do to create a better pool of educators.

Snow said teaching today isn’t just teaching the child, but also caring for the child in a way that has to deal with emotional stress. “We’ve just got a different type of child that comes to the classroom today,” he said, adding that teaching today is almost a human services role.

A teacher can go to Ohio and, on average, make $7,000 more per year than in Indiana, Thompson said. In Illinois, it’s $11,000 more per year on average. “If we do not take care of our schools, we will not attract businesses. This is an unsustainable situation. We have to pay teachers more. We have to listen to them,” she said.

Donato, who is married to a teacher, said the school used to be ran by the principal, administration and nurse and were known and respected in the school. “Those three positions are not the three positions that are necessarily needed now. We need those three positions, but we need to add things like career counselors, case workers and those are more vital parts to the students that we have today with social-emotional learning and physical disabilities,” she said.

Fred-Smith, who is a teacher, said her in class of 32, she has nine students who have individualized learning plans; in another class, she has seven students who don’t speak any English or very little; in another class, she has students who speak multiple different languages. In those classes, she doesn’t always have the aides she needs because the aides often substitute teach for other classes because there aren’t enough substitute teachers.

“So not only do we not pay our teachers enough, we don’t give them the support that they need,” she said.

Nisly, after talking about his daughter wanting to be a teacher and how his father was a teacher, said, “But whenever we see scarcity, as we’re seeing here, we should look at the free-market principles and what causes scarcity. It’s a lack of supply. There’s more demand than supply. Whenever the government gets involved, we usually see scarcity come through. So I think the question we should be asking is, have we taken the free market out of education?”

Aside from the budget and COVID-19, the candidates were asked what their top priorities would be if they were elected.

Thompson said the priorities, as she sees them, are taking care of education, quality early childhood education and affordable housing. “If we don’t address these issues, I think we as a state are going to be in deep trouble,” she said, adding to the list the state’s infant mortality rate.

Donato said health care transparency, broadband internet and the education structure. Fred-Smith said education is always going to be a top priority for her, followed by health care in Indiana and the infant mortality rate.

Nisly said his top priorities are “always to secure the liberties of the people,” with his No. 1 priority being the “right to live for the pre-born.” Second was the right to keep and bear arms, and Nisly said, “I think this is the year for Constitutional carry here in Indiana.” Next was reigning in or eliminating the emergency powers of the governor and local health departments as there’s been “a lot of abuse in those.”

Snow said economic development is critical for Indiana to get things running again. That lends itself to the housing issues in Kosciusko and Wabash counties. In the agricultural world, broadband is critical for farmers, as well as for others, he said. He’s also for eliminating inefficient bills.

Child care was the topic of a question, which asked the candidates if they supported additional funding for the child care industry and what can the state do to help working families.

Donato said, “I think this is the largest tragedy of COVID of all.” She said she supported additional funding, if possible, noting that the budget is going to be “incredibly difficult” with the surplus gone.

Fred-Smith said early childhood education is important, so any child care that can be made available to any worker is a good thing.

Nisly repeated that the government’s response to the pandemic was worse than the disease and the child care issue is an example of that. “The best solution, open up the state. Get people back to work. That’s always the best solution, is to have people free to take care of themselves,” he said.

Snow said he was “very in favor” of finding a solution for child care.

Thompson said early affordable childhood education is a priority of hers because children are a priority and it’s fiscally responsible because of the return investment on it. “I also think it’s just humane,” she said, adding that Head Start should be expanded.

Asked what incentives or actions should the state government take to encourage residents to be as healthy as possible, Nisly said, “I don’t think it’s the state’s responsibility to incentivize people to be healthy. I think people should make the choices to be healthy.”

Snow said he serves on a couple of boards that have been talking about that very subject. He said it’s very true that if a person is healthier, that will cost less money to the state in terms of providing health care.

Thompson said that while she agrees with Nisly that people can take care of themselves, “I think that the fact that the state ... spends less than half the national average on public health spending, than it might very well be true that people don’t understand how. How to be healthy. How to care of themselves. They might not understand the benefits of regular exercise. They might not be able to go to the doctor for regular checkups.”

She said the state needs to increase its public health spending because, “The return on investment to that is four and a half dollars for every dollar spent.”

Donato said as a server of her community, it’s her job to implement healthy policies. Fred-Smith said the state needs to capitalize on its trails, lakes and parks.