Opinion and Forefront

BOEHM: Feeble home rule is a drag on progress

March 3, 2012

Ted BoehmIn case you forgot your Hoosier geography, Uniondale, population 310, is about 20 miles south of Fort Wayne in the rich farmland of Wells County.

Do you think how people get to work in the Indianapolis metropolitan area is a major concern of the folks who live there? Yet their elected member of the Indiana House of Representatives single-handedly decided the fate of a proposal to enable voters in Marion and Hamilton counties to decide for themselves whether to fund a major upgrade of the meager mass transportation capacity now serving central Indiana.

The representative from Uniondale, as chairman of the Ways and Means Committee, had the power to permit the bill to go forward or not. He chose to author the bill to enable a mass transit referendum, then insisted on inserting the controversial right-to-work proposal into the bill, assuring that it could not obtain a majority of the committee, and killing the proposal before it received serious consideration.

There is plenty wrong with this scenario, but the root of the problem is not the legislators. They play the hand they are dealt. Rather, it is the structure of government in our state.

We have very limited home rule in Indiana, so action by the Legislature is often required to permit local initiatives to proceed. Proposals to make a public investment, or even to permit the voters to authorize one, risk threats from the “no new taxes” crowd of well-funded retaliation at the polls.

Blocking a popular local proposal poses no risk of retribution against a legislator from a remote area of the state. Because he or she has no skin in the game, opposition is an easy path. The result is, limited home rule operates as a drag on our ability to adjust to changing times.

There is a second problem with having the Legislature deal with local issues. “Logrolling” is the practice of supporting a bill in which a legislator has no interest in hopes of reciprocal support for a pet project. It has long been recognized as both a source of poor legislation and a diversion of the attention of the Legislature from the important matters that should be addressed.

For these reasons, the founding fathers included a prohibition against “special” legislation in the 1851 Indiana Constitution. This constitutional limitation inhibits some forms of unaccountable legislative behavior, but not all.

The mass transit bill is not unconstitutional special legislation because it addresses problems unique to Indiana’s largest metropolitan area. Yet the Uniondale representative’s ability to control the outcome without facing the consequences at the next election raises the same issues as classic logrolling.

Along the same lines, a senator from a safe Republican district in suburban Lake County introduced legislation last month to eliminate the four at-large seats in the Indianapolis City-County Council. The Republican Senate had cheerfully lived with four at-large seats since they were created by the original Unigov law in 1969. This is understandable because the at-large seats had successfully preserved a Republican majority on the council over four decades regardless of the results in the 25 single-member districts.

For the first time, in 2011, the changing demographics of the county produced four Democratic winners of the at-large seats. Only then did the Lake County senator see the need to reform Marion County local government.

No Marion County legislator chose to take the lead on this proposal. This is not to say the proposal is meritless. In the 1970s, when the at-large seats were seen as a Republican gimmick to control the council, Rep. Ed Delaney and I launched an unsuccessful court challenge to the at-large seats by Democrats.

Whatever the merit of at-large seats in 1970 or today, the issue should not be left to legislators from other parts of the state. Only Marion County voters have a stake in Marion County government, and legislators who fiddle with it should risk retaliation at the polls.•

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Boehm is a retired Indiana Supreme Court justice who previously held senior corporate legal positions and helped launch amateur sports initiatives in Indianapolis. Send comments on this column to ibjedit@ibj.com.

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