Opinion and Forefront

SWAYZE: Indiana needs a stronger chief executive

July 23, 2011

Sue SwayzeSometimes, topics that are touchy politically need the right timing for an honest discussion. Both the gubernatorial race that’s ahead of us and the still-palpable outrage from the Democratic House walkout demonstrate that now’s the time to revisit the issue of stronger gubernatorial powers in Indiana.

People are looking for accountability from elected officials these days—not just in Indiana but across the country. Indiana itself has struggled with government reform measures for the past decade that nearly all would agree are hard for the Legislature to accomplish due to its own conflicts of interest.

One particular area that has been discussed for many years is whether to give the governor a stronger role and hold him or her more accountable on a variety of measures. As a gubernatorial term winds down and with the long session behind us, it is time we consider a “strong executive” for Indiana.

The concept has been hotly debated for centuries, so we’re not going to solve it in one short column. In 1959, Robert Higshaw of the University of Alabama defined the “strong executive doctrine” as one that “assumes the accountability of the chief executive to the voters. A governor and his party … will stand or fall on the kind of government that his administration affords.”

Case in point: Pennsylvania Gov. Thomas McKean was impeached in 1807 over his push for greater authority, while in North Carolina the governor had no legislative veto power for more than 100 years. Yet New York, Illinois and Iowa are examples of states that have changed their constitutions or added legislation to fortify the strong executive construct.

In Indiana, several issues have stuck in the craw of just about every governor at one time or another in recent memory. For example, the Legislature can override the governor’s veto by only a simple majority. We should change that to two-thirds. It requires amending the constitution and losing some legislative power, but adds stronger accountability.

The governor does not have a line-item veto. It would afford a clearer view toward who’s doing what with our tax dollars.

Judicial appointments also tie the governor’s hands. The Indiana Bar Association offers three nominees for appellate and Supreme Court judges in equal footing with the governor’s three, with the chief justice acting as the seventh member of the Judicial Nominating Commission.

Collectively, then, they give three candidates to the governor. The governor’s role is limited in this process.

Instead, these should be selected by the governor and confirmed by the Indiana General Assembly. Since the judges aren’t subject to a retention vote until the next general election, having the governor and Legislature approve them allows the citizens a voice through their elected officials.

Another example is that the governor’s salary doesn’t reflect the skill or contribution—it is stagnant at $90,000. Surely, we the governed want to compete with the private sector as we hire someone who would command a pretty penny but for a commitment to public service.

Finally, the lieutenant governor is picked by state party conventions rather than running with the governor in the primary. The chief should have the freedom to choose his deputy commander.

As the upcoming campaign takes shape, we should begin to discuss these and other weaknesses in the role given to the governor by the Constitution of our state 160 years ago. The heat of the legislative session isn’t the time, although a skillful governor like Mitch Daniels did a masterful job with his agenda given the relatively weak state of the office. And clearer heads can prevail today to block future walkouts on principles of good government and citizen representation rather than retaliation.

With Mitch no longer benefiting and the seat up for grabs, let’s get the discussion going and make it about the merit of ideas and the right tools for governing for the next 160 years.•

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Swayze leads the Indiana Family Institute’s Hoosier Congressional Policy Leadership Series and has held numerous lobbying positions with not-for-profit organizations. Send comments on this column to ibjedit@ibj.com.

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