There’s a saying at the Indiana Statehouse that nothing is dead until lawmakers gavel out and go home.
There’s some truth to that, but it would probably take extreme political mastery to revive legislation this year to overhaul the local government system in Indiana. It’s on its death bed, and the buzzards are circling above.
Republican Gov. Mitch Daniels made it a top priority this session, and some big business groups and others got behind it. They’ve lobbied hard, saying local government is antiquated, cumbersome, overlapping, costly and has way too many elected officials.
Bills were filed in the Republican-ruled Senate that included many of the changes Daniels was seeking. They would, among other things, have eliminated township government, nixed three-member county commissioners in favor of a single county executive, and required some small school districts to consolidate.
The bills stemmed from recommendations made by a commission created by Daniels and led by former Democratic Gov. Joe Kernan and Indiana Chief Justice Randall Shepard. The idea was to get the bills moving first in the Senate, since it’s controlled by Republicans who – it was thought – would be willing to back their governor’s wishes. But the major ones struggled despite the GOP’s 33-17 majority in that chamber.
The Senate did pass a bill that would have county commissioners choose one of two revamped forms of county government or send the issue to a public referendum. But one almost needed a flow chart to understand it.
The Senate also voted to do away with township advisory boards, but not township trustees. That’s not eliminating township government.
The school consolidation bill never made it out of committee.
Daniels said what the Senate did achieve was “still a huge step beyond anything that has happened before and they should be commended for it.” But the fact is, the major proposals as introduced had been heavily amended or killed in the Senate. That’s likely in part because many local officials – especially township trustees – and groups representing them have lobbied just as hard against some of the proposals.
Daniels offered up another reason.
“We all know that change comes hard, particularly change in a system in which people have friends and old allegiances and maybe some sentimental memories of their own days in these old jobs,” he said.
There’s some truth to that. Some lawmakers have even acknowledged it.
But Daniels told reporters not to underestimate the public support for restructuring local government and said he was simply asking House Speaker Patrick Bauer, D-South Bend, to give what did pass the Senate a chance to advance in the House.
Bauer made it clear in December that he thought there were more pressing matters this session, primarily finding ways to help people struggling in such tough economic times.
“These people are asking me, ‘What are you going to do to help?'” Bauer said then. “They are not asking me, ‘When are you going to get rid of township government?’ They are not asking, ‘When are you going to get rid of my county commissioners and replace them with a county executive?'”
Bauer has a point. Unlike the public outcry over property taxes in 2007, to which lawmakers responded, no hordes of people have stormed the Statehouse demanding local government restructuring.
Bauer did allow the issue to get a committee hearing, but it seemed clear that the strategy was to scuttle the topic one way or another. House Democrats first managed to amend five of Daniels’ proposals – in their original form – into a single bill.
If that bill had gotten to the floor, it likely would have died of its own weight – containing too many contentious provisions to get enough bipartisan support to pass. As it turned out, the House committee amended all the original bills into one, and then six Democrats joined one Republican voting to kill it.
Each party blamed the other for its demise.
Supporters say the proposals can be revived later in the session, but Bauer says they shouldn’t count on it. He’s probably right, given his stand and what has happened in both chambers.
“It wouldn’t pass and they all know it,” he said. “They have next year, and maybe they can refine some of their points.”