Statehouse interest in local government reform fading

2012-12-02T00:00:00Z 2012-12-02T22:22:06Z Statehouse interest in local government reform fadingDan Carden dan.carden@nwi.com, (317) 637-9078 nwitimes.com
December 02, 2012 12:00 am  • 

INDIANAPOLIS | The effort to reform local government in Indiana, prompted in part by a 2007 bipartisan report that recommended eliminating townships and making other changes, appears headed for the dustbin of history.

For the past five years, Republican Gov. Mitch Daniels led the charge for local government reform at the Statehouse.

He persuaded the General Assembly to enact about a third of the 27 recommendations contained in the Kernan-Shepard Report, including eliminating most township assessors, consolidating purchasing and reducing conflicts-of-interest among local government employees and local elected officials.

But Daniels knows when he leaves office in January to become president of Purdue University, a reluctant Legislature and the state's new governor won't be as committed to -- as he put it -- dragging Indiana's local governments out of the 19th century and into the 21st century, as he was. 

"That bugs me," Daniels said. "We should have got more of that than we did ... it's so much easier to beat something than to get it done sometimes."

Daniels said in addition to the Kernan-Shepard recommendations, the biggest unfinished reform needed in Northwest Indiana is altering the governing structure of the taxpayer-supported Gary/Chicago International Airport.

"It probably needs a private operator who really knows how to go out and get some traffic coming through there, and then the other stuff starts to happen," Daniels said, referring to airport-related economic development.

While Daniels believes all the Kernan-Shepard reforms could and should still happen, local government reform isn't even on the written agendas of the Republican majorities in the Indiana House and Senate for the legislative session starting in January.

When asked about the issue by reporters last month, House Speaker Brian Bosma, R-Indianapolis, and Senate President David Long, R-Fort Wayne, pivoted to talking about their plans to improve education, keep the state's budget balanced and promote Hoosier jobs.

In addition, many of the 42 state representatives now serving in their first or second terms, including newly elected state Rep. Rick Niemeyer, R-Lowell, got their start in township government and don't want to see it go.

"I believe in township government," Niemeyer said.

Republican Gov.-elect Mike Pence said during the campaign that he supports all government reform, but offered only a general outline of the "new approach" he believes is needed concerning local government reform.

"Is there a way that, in a bipartisan manner, we could come together and develop a framework where local governments, county and city governments, might be able to consolidate back-office functions without losing front-office accessibility?" Pence said. "I think we can find greater efficiencies by promoting reform and still preserving everything people love about local government in Indiana."

Meanwhile, Senate Democratic Leader Tim Lanane, D-Anderson, said he wants to return some power from the state to local governments and allow local taxpayers to "create their own destiny."

"I think we do have to take a look at what we can do to give a little bit more flexibility to the communities, give a little bit more control," Lanane said.

The powerful Indiana Chamber of Commerce still backs local government reform, particularly eliminating townships, but President Kevin Brinegar said failed consolidation referendums in Vanderburgh and Howard counties Nov. 6 suggest the timing isn't right for a big reform push.

"It appears that the voting public, right now, is not quite there in terms of being ready to recognize the waste and inefficiency that comes from a structure we have in local government that dates all the way back to the 1850s," Brinegar said.

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