EDITORIAL: State keeps locals on tight leash

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The failure Jan. 26 of the public transit bill that many had prepared for and supported leading up to this year’s session of the Legislature is a bleak reminder of the stranglehold the state has on local governments in Indiana.

It’s a predicament dripping with hypocrisy. This is a state, after all, where politicians routinely complain about the power of the federal government. The argument that government closest to the people is best extends even to the county level, where legislators have objected to efforts to streamline local government by claiming that the elimination of townships would put too much power in the hands of county executives.

Yet state legislators routinely play an outsize role in the lives of Hoosiers with whom they have little in common. Representatives from urban areas get to make decisions that affect farmers, and lawmakers from sparsely populated counties can kill a measure critical to mobility in a city of 1.7 million people.

The roots of our system—one in which the state dictates the fine details of local government structure and fiscal affairs—dates back to adoption of the state constitution in 1851. Attempts to loosen the reins have fallen short over the years, either at the judicial or legislative level. In recent decades, the Legislature has further tightened its grip, statutorily removing local jurisdiction over certain subjects.

It’s hard to imagine the Legislature summoning the will to put a constitutional amendment before voters that would dilute state power. Even if a home-rule movement caught fire at the Statehouse, political shenanigans of some kind would almost certainly derail its progress.

House Bill 1073 is a perfect example of how the system can fail us. The bill that died in a close committee vote on Jan. 26 would have authorized Marion and Hamilton counties to ask voters to approve an income tax hike that would fund improvements to the Indianapolis region’s underfunded, inadequate public transportation system.

The measure was the product of several years of intense study and a host of business leaders joined longtime transit advocates in supporting it. Yet it failed, for a couple of reasons.

One was the inclusion of language by the bill’s author, Republican Rep. Jeff Espich of Uniondale, that echoed provisions of the controversial right-to-work legislation—anathema to Democrats and their union supporters. There was broad agreement that the language was inconsequential and unnecessary, but Espich wouldn’t drop it and Democrats couldn’t support it.

Their reluctance provided cover for other legislators who feared political reprisals if they voted for the bill. They said it would make them vulnerable to political opponents who would brand them as tax hikers. But even casual followers of the issue know that legislators weren’t being asked to approve a tax increase, only to let local voters decide.

It’s sad that some legislators would shrug off important legislation over fear of misleading campaign messages, but these are the games played by lawmakers who don’t take policy questions seriously if their constituents don’t have skin in the game.

In this state of weak home rule, cities and towns suffer when power-loving legislators can’t see beyond their home districts.•


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