INDIANAPOLIS — When a politician makes the decision to accept a vice presidential or lieutenant governor invitation, it generally means taking on a subservient posture. All the time.
So what happened this past week when Lt. Gov. Suzanne Crouch leveled criticism at her boss, Gov. Eric Holcomb, over the issue of Attendant Care of severely disabled children, was rare. That program administered by the Family Social Services Administration had a nearly $1 billion cost overrun as it transitioned away from the pandemic.
“If they could make a billion dollar mistake that we know about, what else do we not know about ... yet? People just don’t know about it,” Crouch told Howey Politics/State Affairs on Monday as she called for an independent audit.
“He’s the governor and he’s performing his duties and I’m performing my duties as chair of the IDD [Intellectual and Developmental Disabilities] task force,” she said. “It is my duty to speak out on behalf of the people who don’t have voices. And they don’t have high paid lobbyists. They have only people like me and the other members of the task force to speak out and draw attention to this issue.”
Asked who should be held responsible for the shortfall, Crouch responded, “I think that’s up to the governor to decide.”
The Attendant Care program is complex. It is designed to pay parents of severely disabled children to help with their care. There is a shortage of trained professionals to help these families cope with often daunting disabilities. We’re talking about kids with feeding tubs and tracheostomies, and suffering from epileptic episodes.
The new guidelines will be determined later this month and put into practice on July 1. Crouch said that she, the task force and affected families are seeking a “pause” in the new program rollout so questions can be answered.
“We’re talking about thousands,” she said. “That’s what we asked at the Intellectual & Developmental Disabilities Task Force meeting and we never got an answer. I’ve heard numbers of 11,000, but I didn’t hear that from FSSA.”
Crouch also lobbed a biting comment at Republican House Speaker Todd Huston and Senate President Pro Tem Rodric Bray after legislation that might have addressed the issue died last week. “It appears that the leadership just refused to call down the bill to avoid a discussion of these issues pertaining to these parents being compensated for taking care of their children,” Crouch said. “They just didn’t want a discussion. It’s like they are trying to put a lid on things. They just don’t want attention.”
In November, Crouch said Holcomb didn’t go far enough by changing which state agency will oversee the contentious study of water availability for a proposed 35-mile pipeline to the LEAP Lebanon District. She said in a statement to State Affairs that Holcomb’s move “is a step in the right direction, but more needs to be done.”
“Hoosiers continue to have questions and putting one government agency in charge of another is hardly reassuring,” Crouch said. “Hoosiers deserve better. We cannot continue to operate in the shadows.”
Such discord at the top of the executive pyramid is exceedingly rare. The only public historic parallels that come to mind were when Lt. Gov. Frank O’Bannon broke a Senate tie on an alcohol-related bill that temporarily unsettled Gov. Evan Bayh; and a simmering breach between Gov. O’Bannon and Lt. Gov. Joe Kernan involving the selection of a state Democratic Party chair in 2002. Kernan was so disgruntled he opted to fold his 2004 gubernatorial campaign in late-2002. Kernan would re-enter the race following Gov. O’Bannon’s death in 2003.
In 2016, there was behind-the-scenes tension between Gov. Mike Pence and Lt. Gov. Sue Ellspermann, who shocked the political establishment by resigning that February to take the helm of Ivy Tech. This created the rocket-fast ascension of third-place U.S. Senate candidate Eric Holcomb to be Pence’s new lieutenant governor, and then the gubernatorial nomination by a single Republican Central Committee vote after Pence bolted for the Donald Trump presidential ticket that July.
Suzanne Crouch has been an activist lieutenant governor since Holcomb selected her for his 100-day campaign in August 2016 and their subsequent victory that November. Crouch contributed $2.5 million of her campaign funds to the Holcomb effort. She has been active on both the political and policy front, with her portfolio as state agriculture commissioner and her policy tentacles ranging from her chairing of the Intellectual Developmental Disabled Task Force, to rural affairs, to broadband expansion, to housing issues. She has traveled extensively to all 92 counties over the past eight years.
She is now in a rare and intense six-way Republican primary race to succeed Holcomb, who is term-limited. She is running against U.S. Sen. Mike Braun, former attorney general Curtis Hill, and former Indiana Economic Development Corporation officials Brad Chambers and Eric Doden, and businesswoman Jamie Reitenour.
Crouch, who is seeking to become the first female governor in Indiana history, has veered to the right, with her campaign prominently featuring her tie-breaking vote on a special session abortion amendment in July 2022, as well as endorsing Donald Trump for a third presidential nomination last month.
And she’s now decided to call out her boss on an issue she is passionate about.
Brian Howey is senior writer and columnist for Howey Politics Indiana/State Affairs. Find Howey on Facebook and X @hwypol.