INDIANAPOLIS -- Gov. Mike Pence says he will not support any expansion of civil rights protections for LGBT Hoosiers that restricts religious freedom – his first official statement on such protections since they were proposed last year in the wake of the state's religious freedom law.
Watch the full State of the State address in the video player above.
"I will not support any bill that diminishes the religious freedom of Hoosiers or that interferes with the Constitutional rights of our citizens to live out their beliefs in worship, service or work," Pence said at his annual "State of the State" address Tuesday night. "Our freedoms are too precious to our people, too vital to our wellbeing and have been bought at too high a price to do any less."
Pence has said for months he was "studying" the issue of expanding statewide civil rights protections to LGBT Hoosiers – a move already taken via local ordinance by a number of cities, including Carmel, Anderson and Pence's hometown of Columbus.
The governor framed the debate to legislators as a conflict between his belief that "no one should be harassed or mistreated because of who they are, who they love, or what they believe," and the "faith and the freedom to live out their faith" that Hoosiers cherish.
"The question before you as the elected representatives of the people of Indiana is whether it is necessary or even possible to reconcile these two values in the law without compromising the freedoms we hold dear," Pence said.
If the issues are indeed irreconcilable, Pence made clear where he would come down on the issue.
"Our constitution not only protects the 'right to worship Almighty God … according to the dictates of (our) own consciences,' but, it also provides that 'No law shall, in any case whatever, control the free exercise and enjoyment of religious opinions, nor interfere with the rights of conscience,'" Pence said.
Freedom Indiana, one of the main proponents of expanding civil rights protections to LGBT Hoosiers, issued a statement following Pence's address calling it a "complete letdown."
"In his speech tonight, after 10 months of allegedly listening to Hoosiers, Governor Pence chose to punt the critical issue of civil rights protections for gay and transgender people to Indiana lawmakers," said campaign manager Chris Paulsen. "We are disappointed in his lack of leadership on an update that we know a majority of people in our state support."
Refuting Obama on gun control
Pence began his address by taking on remarks made by President Barack Obama last week during a town hall meeting about gun control.
Obama highlighted Indiana as a place where nearly anyone can buy a weapon, and then take it to another state.
Pence responded that Indiana was one of the first states to allow National Guard members to carry firearms at all recruiting stations, and that Hoosiers believe in their Second Amendment rights.
"Hoosiers know firearms in the hands of law-abiding citizens – including our National Guard – makes our communities more safe, not less safe," Pence said. "Indiana will always defend the right to keep and bear arms. Mr. President, please stop blaming our gun laws for violence in Chicago. Hoosiers are not the cause of crime in your hometown – criminals are."
'Taking a step back from ISTEP'
Pence was met with applause when he urged lawmakers to hold Indiana schools harmless for the results of the 2015 ISTEP – which was plagued by administrative issues and was the first year under new standards.
He also touted new investments by the state in education.
"Hoosiers deserve to know this General Assembly passed the largest increase in K-12 education funding in Indiana history," he said. "And, with nearly $50 million in new funding, Indiana has become the first state in America to make career and vocational education a priority in every high school again."
Big bucks for roads
Democrats have seized on issues with road and bridge conditions in some parts of the state to attack Pence as soft on infrastructure. On Tuesday, he renewed a call for a billion in new funding for roads in the state.
"Last year, we invested more than $1 billion in nearly 400 transportation projects. We finished I-69 from Evansville to Bloomington, improved U.S. 31 to South Bend, and the new Ohio River bridges will support growth in Southern Indiana for generations," Pence said. "While the condition of our roads and bridges ranks above the national average, I propose we make $1 billion available to improve state roads and bridges in the next four years and follow the lead of Senators Long and Hershman to provide another $400 million for local roads."
Pence also said he will advocate for a new port in the southeastern part of the state to continue economic growth.
Touting HIP 2.0 success
The governor shied away from historic expansions of needle-sharing programs across the state – instead focusing on the rollout of the new Healthy Indiana Plan.
"We became the first state in America to reform traditional Medicaid for all able-bodied adults with the launch of the Health Indiana Plan 2.0. Unlike the mandates and taxes of Obamacare, HIP 2.0 is based on personal responsibility," Pence said. "Today, more than 350,000 low-income Hoosiers have access to health insurance they can pay for and it is changing lives."
Dealing with drugs
Confronting drug abuse made Pence's short list of priorities for the next year. He said the state has been "leaning into" the war on drugs and will continue to pursue individuals who sell drugs to children.
"I have a message for some who might be watching: if you are selling drugs to our kids, we are coming after you," Pence said. "Let's get even tougher on drug dealers in this state. Let's pass stiffer penalties on those who sell these poisons to our kids and let's do it this year."
Pence also plugged the state's first new mental health hospital in decades announced recently.
"We cannot just arrest our way out of this problem," he said. "We have to make sure families have more option for treatment and somewhere to go when a loved one is caught up in drug addiction. That is why I formed the Governor's Task Force on Enforcement, Treatment and Prevention. And, that is why we announced plans for the state's first new mental health hospital in a generation."