KENNEDY: Watch out for shifting winds

Keywords Opinion

Sheila Suess KennedyWell, that certainly didn’t take long.

As a result of last November’s elections, the General Assembly is firmly in the hands of the Republicans, who enjoy super-majorities in both the House and Senate.

Along with the other foolishness we’ve come to expect from legislators of both parties—forays into pressing issues like cursive writing, patently unconstitutional efforts to require prayer, and the teaching of creationism in our schools, “what-can-you-be-thinking” proposals to allow guns on college campuses, and continuing efforts to control women’s bodies and disadvantage gays—we are now seeing the emergence of nakedly partisan efforts to advantage the Republican Party at the expense of good government and sound policy.

Senate Bill 621, introduced by Mike Young, would allow the mayor to unilaterally “reduce or modify” ordinances passed by the council that appropriate money or levy a tax (he currently must sign or veto them as passed), essentially gutting the City-County Council’s fiscal authority by allowing the mayor to simply ignore legislative budget decisions.

The proposal also eliminates the existing requirement that the council approve high-level mayoral appointments. It “eliminates provisions that allow the City-County Council to require the Capital Improvement Board of Managers to make payments in lieu of taxes.”

And the bill gives the mayor effective control of the development commission by eliminating the appointing power exercised by the county treasurer, auditor and assessor and vesting that power in the mayor.

The proposal further eliminates the four at-large city-county councilors, all of whom are not-so-incidentally Democrats.

All in all, quite the power grab.

On the one hand, most of this is terrible public policy. Whether or not one approves of any particular decision made by the council, ours is supposed to be a government of checks and balances. Stripping the legislative branch of significant authority and creating an “imperial” mayoral office with greatly expanded powers is an invitation to all sorts of mischief (not to mention that such measures are strikingly inconsistent with the “limited government” rhetoric of the GOP).

There has previously been debate about the necessity of at-large council positions, but the existence of those positions was similarly consistent with checks and balances. The idea was to elect at least four councilors whose allegiance would be to the voters of the entire county, as a counterbalance to those whose votes would be more narrowly focused on the interests of their own constituents.

On the other hand, what we have in Senate Bill 621 is a perfect example of the limits and unintended consequences of short-term thinking. It is likely to come back to bite its proponents in the you-know-where.

Let’s get real. We wouldn’t even be seeing a bill like this one if Indianapolis were not becoming an increasingly “blue” city. Assuming this bill passes, it may allow Mayor Ballard to ignore that pesky, small-d democratic process during the remainder of his term, but demographics being what they are, future mayors are more likely than not to be Democrats.

When those mayors use the new powers provided to the office, we’re likely to hear screams of outrage from the folks who are promoting this power grab. That’s the problem with trying to game the system; you can’t always foresee who will be playing the game.

As a friend of mine used to say, poison gas is a great weapon until the wind shifts.•


Kennedy is a professor of law and public policy at the School of Public and Environmental Affairs at IUPUI. She blogs regularly at She can be reached at Send comments on this column to

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