Read my lips: Reform local government

May 4, 2009
With the economy struggling, tax receipts falling and federal deficits soaring, there's more pressure than ever for government cost-cutting. Yet most Indiana local government-reform efforts have died an ignoble death in two consecutive legislative sessions. Why?

The easiest way to push reform is to act in response to crisis—real or perceived. As the Kernan-Shepard Commission on Local Government Reform convened in 2007, Indiana found itself in property tax chaos. This triggered screaming headlines and mass protests. It's no surprise, therefore, that the most significant Kernan-Shepard reform to date involves assessors.

As a public-policy analyst, I've learned some key reasons why government reforms are about as popular as root canals:

Fear of confrontation. Most people prefer to avoid confrontation. For your average state senator or representative, it's anxiety-inducing to head home from the Capitol to tell Frank the sheriff, Mabel the auditor or Bob the commissioner that you're eliminating their elected position in the interest of a newfangled model.

Fear of upending the political farm system. Traditionally, lower-level elective offices have fed both parties. The county council member becomes a state senator. The state senator becomes governor. What's more, precincts, wards and town ships are traditional breeding grounds for voter turnout. So the parties are understandably reluctant to tinker.

Fear of losing local control and accountability. Even if folks don't understand what the auditor, assessor or coroner do exactly, and even if they can't name the individuals elected to these offices, they're reluctant to cede the ability to "throw the bum out" to an elected mayor or county executive further up the political ladder.

Fear of increased accountability. Increased transparency and accountability can cut both ways. Some elected executives grow frustrated when they're blamed for tax increases over which they have no authority—increases imposed by appointed boards and commissions, for example. On the other hand, there are executives who like being able to shift responsibility to other bodies. That way, they can say, "I didn't do it. The board did it." Under Kernan-Shepard, there'd be no hiding, because only elected officials could increase a tax.

Despite these inherent reasons to resist, I see political and public-policy opportunity in government reform. Here's why:

Even the best leaders can't perpetually do more with less if they're bound by silos and boxes invented decades or centuries ago. Boundaries drawn in the horse-and-buggy era make no sense in the age of cyberspace. Procedures developed before the advent of rubber stamps are nonsensical in an era of e-filing. Elective offices established at a time when everyone knew everyone else in a small town make no sense in a century when most folks can't name their congressional representative.

Wouldn't it be better to give fewer, more-visible elected officials the power to hire and fire the professionals they need? Wouldn't it be better to provide those professionals with adequate resources, systems and structures to do more efficient, visible, understandable and accountable work? Wouldn't it be better to know what the leaders were doing and know whom to remove from office if it wasn't done well?

Wouldn't the citizens and voters be happier if fewer of their tax dollars were spent with a higher level of accountability? Wouldn't they be better informed if they had fewer layers to watch and comprehend? Wouldn't they be more likely to vote for elected officials and the proteges who emerged from a more effective government?

Wouldn't our political parties be stronger if they could do more for less?

Wouldn't the idealistic young people in my university's classrooms rather work in governments that were more modern, professional and respected?

The status quo of outdated, outmoded local government is a recipe for broken promises, perpetual public-policy failure and proverbial political disrespect. Neither the citizens nor the parties win.

Government reform requires courage and confrontation. But for leaders willing to act, the rewards will be rich and well-deserved.


Krauss directs the Indiana University Public Policy Institute and its Center for Urban Policy and the Environment. He is also a former Indianapolis deputy mayor. This is an abbreviated version of a column that first appeared in April in The Ripon Forum in Washington, D.C.
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