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VIEWPOINT: Reform won't require constitutional rewrite

October 22, 2007

In July, when Gov. Mitch Daniels appointed the Commission on Local Government Reform to search for ways to streamline and modernize Indiana's system of local government, he recommended considering every option for bringing government into the 21st century. And he raised one particularly dramatic option: convening a convention to rewrite Indiana's constitution, a document that has been amended often, but never rewritten, in 156 years.

Times were different in 1851, when Indiana enacted its constitution. The state had fewer than 1 million residents. The economy was almost entirely agricultural. And politics was flavored with Jacksonian populism.

But provisions of that constitution remain relevant as the commission chaired by Chief Justice Randall Shepard and former Gov. Joe Kernan begins to consider options for restructuring local government to make it more efficient and responsive.

The constitution does address some components of local government directly and does restrain how much local government can be reformed without constitutional amendments. But the necessary amendments could be simple to create.

Two key points: First, the constitution does require that Indiana have counties (although it says almost nothing about how they are to be governed and, therefore, most county-level structure comes from statutes, not the constitution). Second, the constitution does not require township governments.

No township offices are mentioned in the constitution. Townships' tasks of assessing property, providing poor relief, and (sometimes) managing fire departments have been assigned by legislation. When the constitution was enacted, townships were the primary unit for providing education-each township ran a school system. But legislation allowed that responsibility to be fulfilled by other units of government. Similarly, today it would take only an act of the General Assembly to transfer all the functions now performed by township officials to other levels of government.

Change would be a little more complex on the county level. The constitution requires that each county elect a clerk, auditor, treasurer, recorder, sheriff, coroner and surveyor, but it says nothing about these officers' duties.

Because these are the only constitutional provisions structuring local government, it's possible to enact meaningful change without a constitutional convention. Granted, because the constitution does not prescribe any particular duties to these positions, the Legislature could eliminate their duties-but it cannot simply abolish the offices. It would take a constitutional amendment to achieve that.

In many cases, this change would be welcome regardless of statewide reform efforts. Many people believe some of these offices (coroner, for example) should be professionalized and taken out of politics. And, more pertinent to the current discussion, now that Indiana assesses property based on market value, the assessing function also could be professionalized, by hiring expert appraisers and assessors rather than choosing assessors by popular vote.

Many Hoosiers would welcome that change, and it could be made without constitutional constraint because the assessment system we have now-with 1,008 separately elected county and township assessors-is entirely a legislative creation and could be repealed or changed by the General Assembly.

The current attention to local government reform should be aimed at efficiency and, even more, transparency-so taxpayers know who makes the decisions that affect their taxes.

Only small changes in the Indiana Constitution would be needed to accomplish big changes in local government. By avoiding a convention to rewrite the constitution, we avoid the chaos that would ensue: Every controversial issue from abortion to religious freedom to criminal defendants' rights could be raised for debate, and that would take the focus away from local government reform.



Laramore is the lead partner in Baker & Daniels' appellate practice group and former legal counsel to governors Frank O'Bannon and Joe Kernan.
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