The tech executive hoping to unseat Gov. Eric Holcomb next year said Indiana’s budget priorities should be shifted to boost teacher salaries.

Democrat Josh Owens, who made his first local appearance Wednesday since announcing his bid last month, said the legislature didn’t go far enough by injecting money into the teacher retirement fund to free up money for pay raises.

Instead, Owens called for using teacher merit bonuses for salary increases and diverting funds spent on the ILEARN test to classrooms. The money could also be drawn, he said, from the state’s $300 million budget surplus.

“And $50 million of that we’re spending on improvements to a state fair swine barn,” Owens, a Wabash College graduate, said before addressing Orr Fellowship candidates at Fusion 54. 

“I’m not saying we shouldn’t spend any money on the state fair,” he added, “but it certainly seems like when we have a situation of systematically underpaying our teachers in public education across the state, that money would be much better spent going into the classroom rather than… improving the state fair.”

The 34-year-old Shelbyville native, who is the first openly gay candidate for governor of Indiana and has never run for public office, is placing teacher’s paychecks at the top of his priority list in the campaign. He also calls for eliminating public school textbook fees.

Until his term expired in August, Owens served as chair of the Indiana Charter School Board, which oversees approval of the state’s publicly-funded independent schools. 

Under his watch, Owens said members rejected applications in communities without broad support or enough students to enroll and closed down “multiple” schools that failed to meet accountability standards. Most of the work, he added, focused on opening adult learning centers.

“I’ve kind of grown up in an Indiana where charter schools have always existed, and so my view has always been let’s make sure that those schools are playing by the rules, are being held accountable and are the best possible schools that they possibly can be,” he said.

Owens is one of two Democrats who have entered the race. 

Former state health commissioner Dr. Woody Myers started his campaign earlier this year. 

Republican Holcomb is widely expected by political observers to win re-election, but could face a primary challenge from a Carmel businessman.

Owens touts his own experience in the business sector. He serves as CEO of Indianapolis-based Supply Kick, an online marketplace retailer, and previously taught economics at Indiana and Butler Universities. 

Prior to teaching, he was an economics adviser to Republican Congressman Luke Messer of Indiana, a family friend.

“I think my experience is actually what Hoosiers are looking for right now,” Owens said. “I mean, you look at the situation we’ve been facing in Indiana not coming to a conclusion or not getting a solution for teachers… or on health outcomes in Indiana, for example, and that’s kind of the result of politicians who have been there for a long period of time doing a lot of the same things over and over.”

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