Deborah Daniels: What happened to home rule in our government?

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Deborah DanielsElections have consequences. At least, I used to think so.

In Indiana, there has long been a deep respect for local government, especially among members of the Republican Party, who once championed (and passed legislation supporting) what was referred to as “home rule.” The theory was that cities and towns had a right to govern themselves without undue influence or oversight from the Indiana General Assembly.Whatever one’s doubts about the likely benefits of these projects, the question is whether state government should interfere in local government decision-making.

The Indiana Constitution prohibits what it calls “special legislation.” Article 4, Section 22, of the constitution provides that “[t]he General Assembly shall not pass local or special laws … regulating county and township business.” The following section reads: “In all the cases enumerated in the preceding section, and in all other cases where a general law can be made applicable, all laws shall be general, and of uniform operation throughout the State.”

For generations, this provision has been understood to require legislators to refrain from passing laws that would change the decisions of specific local communities. But in recent years, this lesson seems to have been forgotten by the same party that once championed home rule.

What changed?

Well, Indianapolis has become a majority Democratic city, governed by Democrats who sometimes make decisions that some of my Republican friends in the General Assembly don’t agree with. This has led to legislative efforts, including those of Sen. Aaron Freeman, an Indianapolis south-sider and former Indianapolis city-county councilor, to reverse certain acts of the Indianapolis government. He seeks to stop the development of dedicated lanes for bus rapid transit and reverse the “no-right-on-red” ordinance covering the Mile Square.

In a 2016 referendum, 59% of Marion County voters supported a plan for three bus rapid transit lines. The first, running north-south from Broad Ripple to the University of Indianapolis, is completed. The second (Indianapolis to Lawrence) is underway, and the third (east-west on Washington Street to the airport) is not started.

This year, in his fifth attempt, Freeman-authored legislation has passed the Senate that would likely endanger the rest of the project by putting at risk significant federal funds.

Freeman’s opposition is based on his belief that a dedicated lane on Washington Street would be injurious to traffic flow. Though his theory is not supported by data, he soldiers on.

This same logic governs his two-year effort to stop the council from prohibiting right turns on red lights in the Mile Square. Having failed to reverse the legislation, he now proposes to simply stop the posting of any additional signs for a year while the issue is “studied.”

The senator admitted recently to IBJ that he is “not an engineer, and I don’t do traffic studies for a living.” Nonetheless, he seeks to substitute his wisdom for that of the City-County Council.

I don’t doubt his sincerity; I’m sure he truly believes he is right. I, too, wonder whether the right-turn-on-red ordinance will indeed prevent pedestrian injury, but the council claims to have studied the issue already.

Meanwhile, a bill that would reverse the downtown property tax recently passed by the City-County Council has now passed the House.

Whatever one’s doubts about the likely benefits of these projects, the question is whether state government should interfere in local government decision-making.

When the General Assembly acts on the basis of research, even if I might dislike the legislation’s impact on me, I recognize that the legislators are elected to represent me on a statewide basis and have done their homework. It seems to me that the General Assembly should give local jurisdictions that same degree of respect.•

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Daniels is a retired partner of Krieg DeVault LLP, a former U.S. Attorney and assistant U.S. attorney general and former president of the Sagamore Institute. Send comments to ibjedit@ibj.com.


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