EYE ON THE PIE: BMV closings raise bigger issue

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The closing of several offices of the Indiana Bureau of Motor Vehicles involves serious issues that are worth attention.

Just after the end of the legislative session, the BMV commissioner announced that a few smaller offices would be closed. The number of patrons these offices serve was deemed insufficient to maintain and staff the facilities. In an age of increasing use of electronic transactions, this makes sense.

One of these facilities was in Hope, a small Bartholomew County town in the district represented by state Sen. Robert Garton, president pro tem. Garton objected and the office in Hope will remain open. Offices in the districts of less-powerful senators and representatives are still subject to closure.

Who should decide where state facilities should be located: the Legislature or the administration? This is little different from the closing of military facilities by the U.S. Department of Defense. In that case, however, DOD makes its recommendations and submits them to an “independent” board for review and final decisions. This method was chosen once Congress recognized it would never close any facilities on its own.

Advancing the cause of your constituents, helping them get jobs, and guiding funds toward their concerns are legitimate functions in a representative form of government. Yet another representative’s good efforts will often be labeled “pork” by his/her opponents.

Is it better to leave such allocation decisions to the administrative branch of government? But is the BMV free of “political” considerations? Would a list of offices to be closed coincide with an effort by the administration to demonstrate its muscle?

One wants to hope the administration chose Hope and other offices on purely objective criteria. But even objective criteria might be challenged.

For example, is it the volume of transactions in an office that should be the deciding factor? Should we make adjustments for the age, ethnicity or income of the public using that office? Is an office in which the majority of transactions are made by people over 45 to be treated the same as an office with the same number of transactions with mostly younger clients? The older population may not feel comfortable doing business online and feel more at ease being in line. An office serving poorly educated people may provide necessary one-on-one assistance not available online.

If BMV wants to get more people to engage in online or other remote transactions, why does it charge a fee for services that are free if you go into a branch in person? What is the long-term vision of BMV for interacting with the public? Now is the time to make clear the criteria, plans and policies of BMV and other administrative units.

How much micro-management should be the domain of the General Assembly? Do legislators have the information necessary to make location-specific decisions?

The Legislature is heavily involved with the funding of our state universities, often making highly specific allocations to particular locations. Is this its job or should that be left to the universities themselves?

The Legislature funds specific road and bridge projects. Is that its job or should these decisions be left to the engineers in the Department of Transportation?

If we decided to stop legislators from doing what they have done for so long, how could we do it? Who has the power to keep members of the Legislature from padding and protecting their seats?

Finally, do we have any reason to believe any administration, sitting in Indianapolis, has a better understanding of what needs to be done in specific locations? Perhaps local legislators are best informed about local needs. This is a complex issue worthy of serious attention.

Marcus taught economics more than 30 years at Indiana University and is the former director of IU’s Business Research Center. His column appears weekly. To comment on this column, go to IBJ Forum at www.ibj.comor send e-mail to mortonjmarcus@yahoo.com.

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