by State Rep. Terry Goodin
As a priority for state lawmakers in 2009, local government reform ranks well below finding jobs for Hoosiers and passing a responsible state budget.
That is what I have heard from the people I see on the street in my district, what they have told me over the telephone and what they have said in letters, surveys and e-mails to my office. They want to know what the Indiana General Assembly can do to turn around our state’s economy, not when we are going to get rid of our county commissioners.
More than any other factor, I believe the public’s lack of interest has pushed aside efforts this session to see enactment of reforms originally suggested by a commission led by Indiana Supreme Court Justice Randall Shepard and former Gov. Joe Kernan.
This week, members of both parties on the House Government and Regulatory Reform Committee defeated an effort to place into state law the reforms originally suggested by the Shepard-Kernan commission. While these proposals are technically still alive through the rest of the 2009 session, it is difficult to see any of them gaining much support, especially as the Legislature attempts to reach a consensus on a statewide stimulus package and a new budget.
When these reforms were initially announced, they were portrayed as an effort to reduce what commission members saw as inefficient government at the local level.
Their recommendations included turning many county officials – including the sheriff, clerk, auditor and treasurer – into appointed rather than elected positions. They recommended replacing county commissioners with either a single county executive or a single legislative body. They also recommended getting rid of all township government and called for another round of school consolidation.
Making government more efficient and wise in its use of taxpayer dollars should be a goal for elected officials at all levels. The Indiana House already has approved measures to eliminate duplicate services offered by the state Office of Management and Budget (OMB) and combine the offices of state auditor and treasurer into a single state controller.
But I believe there is a problem when you begin to talk about replacing local elected officials with appointed officials who are only accountable to the people who appointed them, rather than to the public. While many of us like to complain about our commissioners or township trustees, we also like the idea that we can still get them on the phone to voice our opinion. They are responsible and accessible. If they are not, they are voted out of office.
As these Shepard-Kernan proposals began working their way through the Indiana Senate, it was obvious lawmakers in that chamber had problems with them. A number of the original recommendations were watered down to make them more acceptable, and the entire package was placed in several different bills.
However, these changes only served to muddy the waters. Counties whose operations were criticized as inefficient and wasteful were exempted from some of the reforms, many of which were initially heralded as the way to correct the administrative problems in those very counties.
In addition, the effort to replace county commissioners was turned into a confusing series of options. Those choices included leaving it up to the commissioners themselves to determine whether to eliminate their jobs or putting the matter up for a local referendum.
When these issues reached the Indiana House, it was felt that a better approach was to restore the Shepard-Kernan proposals into a single bill that would enable representatives to consider it in its entirety. After nearly four hours of testimony and debate in committee, a bipartisan vote of the members soundly rejected the concepts.
Do the ideas behind government reform deserve to be debated in sessions to come? I think any public official worth his or her weight would say yes, especially if reforms lead to improved services at reduced cost.
But the advocates of Kernan-Shepard did not do a good job convincing the people of Indiana that the changes would provide a government that was better able to respond to the public’s needs. I believe the public’s interest is elsewhere, particularly in finding a job.
The latest figures show Indiana’s unemployment rate is 9.2 percent, which means more than 300,000 Hoosiers are out of work. Should we be drastically cutting government services when those services are needed the most?