Hundreds of Indiana's least-populated townships face forced mergers with their neighbors in what would be the most significant overhaul of the local governments since a gubernatorial commission called for their elimination a decade ago.
Township government leaders have staved off previous legislative attempts targeting their existence. Indiana House Republican leaders have made the consolidation of townships with fewer than 1,200 residents one of their priorities for this year's General Assembly session.
The full GOP-dominated House is expected to vote Monday on whether to endorse the plan and send it on the Senate for consideration.
Indiana's township system was established in the 1800s, but most of their responsibilities for schools, roads and other services have been taken over by school districts, counties and cities over the decades. Their typical duties now are mostly providing temporary housing, utility or food assistance to low-income residents and fire protection in rural areas.
Advocates of township consolidation say it will provide more efficiency, resulting in cost savings and better services in areas with few residents.
The Indiana Township Association, which has membership from about two-thirds of the state's 1,005 townships, supports the proposal, although officials from many smaller townships are pushing back.
Township governments also faced questions about limited oversight of their spending of taxpayer money. The State Board of Accounts has found some 30 instances of improper spending in audits of about 350 townships over the past three years, said Rep. Tim Brown of Crawfordsville, chairman of the House Ways and Means Committee.
About 300 townships would face finding merger partners under the House Republican plan. Those would have to be completed by 2023.
Supporters of the current township structure argue that it is the level of government closest to the people and the most responsive. Some question whether focusing only on the smallest townships would result in much savings.
The budgets of the 312 smallest townships amount to nearly $17 million, which is about 4.5 percent of total township spending, according to an analysis by Purdue University economist Larry DeBoer, who has studied Indiana tax policy for about 30 years. Seventy-five of Indiana's 92 counties would have at least one township facing mergers, with the most in Warren County (11 townships) and Pulaski and Rush counties (10 townships each).
Several legislators from rural areas aren't backing the forced merger plan.
"I don't see how we're reducing government unless we reduce all township government," said Republican Rep. Robert Cherry of Greenfield.
"The smallest ones, it doesn't affect that much, so if we don't reduce them all, I think we're just picking and choosing."
When Republican Mitch Daniels was governor, he described township governments as "antique" and "obsolete" and repeatedly pushed for transferring their duties to county or city officials. Daniels found little support among legislators despite the backing of a commission he appointed in 2007 that was led by former Democratic Gov. Joe Kernan and then-Indiana Chief Justice Randall Shepard.
One major change came in 2008 when the General Assembly acted to eliminate most township assessor positions, shifting that property tax assessment work to county-level officials. Only 13 township assessors remain around the state, according to the Department of Local Government Finance.
Previous attempts to do away with township governments have failed in the state Senate, where a reservoir of township support remains.
"I feel that any time we can create efficiencies for the taxpayer, we should explore that," Republican Senate President Pro Tem David Long said. "There are obviously some townships that are quite rural and there might be a way to save money by joining forces."
But he added: "There are some who feel the township system isn't broken and shouldn't be touched."