One year ago the Kernan-Shepard report came out and the 2008 General Assembly adopted three of its 27 provisions aimed at reducing the number of local government officials. Now, Governor Mitch Daniels, wants much of the report to become law, but he may be in for a challenge during this year’s legislative session.
The report was co-chaired by former Democratic Governor Joe Kernan and Indiana Supreme Court Justice Randall Shepard, who was appointed by a Republican. State Rep. Matt Pierce (D- Bloomington) said that shows the bipartisan nature of the report, but also points out legislators on both sides of the aisle share an almost equal lack of enthusiasm about it.
“I haven’t had legislators coming up to me and saying my number one goal is to implement the Kernan-Shepard report, In fact. I don’t think most legislators have that much interest in it,” Pierce said.
During 2008′s session, Pierce – chairman of the House Elections committee — granted a hearing for a bill borne from the provisions of the Kernan-Shepard report.
“I know in that committee a lot of people didn’t even like the fact I was giving that bill a hearing, on both sides of the aisle,” he said.
And attitudes haven’t changed much since then, Pierce said. But proponents of certain measures in the report promise a fight the upcoming session. The time has come, say Governor Daniels and other lawmakers, for fewer government officials, who say smaller government saves money, increases efficiency and is better for business.
But skeptics argue there’s already little to no redundancy in local government. They say cutting local government jobs means cutting services too. And they argue the report’s provisions aren’t backed up by convincing data. State Sen. Brent Hershman (R-Wheatfield) said legislators haven’t considered many of the reports provisions beyond the surface.
“Not all of the ideas have been thoroughly debated and not all of the ideas will see the light of day, most likely,” Hershman said.
Rep. Pierce says legislators will already have their hands full crafting a slimmed down budget and fixing school funding, among other tasks. If the Kernan-Shepard report proposals don’t persuade legislators to do more than improve the efficiency of local government, they likely won’t get far, Pierce said.
But Governor Daniels has promised to use his clout as a popular, recently re-elected governor to persuade legislators. That’s why supporters of the report are trying to rile the public into making the issue a priority, Pierce said.
“If they get the public engaged and the public state contacting their legislators and saying we want this to happen. Then I think it has a much better chance,” he said. “But if this is just an inside the Statehouse discussion, then I think it may not fare too well.”
Enter organizations like MySmartGov.org. The website aims to increase public support for local government reform, but it’s anything but homegrown. It’s partially funded by the Indiana Association of Realtors and the Indiana Chamber of Commerce, which publicly supports all 27 of the report’s recommendations. Chamber President Kevin Brinegar says the Chamber should, can and will have an influence on how local government is structured.
“We pay the largest part of the tab in the form of property taxes. And if we’re going to pay these taxes we would like to have a structure that would gives us the greatest return on our investment of tax dollars,” he said. “And the businesses community believes strongly the current structure doesn’t meet this objective.”
The Chamber makes no secret of working with Governor Daniels to adopt portions of the Kernan-Shepard report. MySmartGov.org’s Executive Director Marilyn Schultz said her organization, in which Brinnegar holds a leadership position, is working with legislators and the Governor’s office to translate the report into bills and force the issue onto the agenda of legislators.
“We need to make it tougher not to do it than do it. And that takes citizen support,” she said.
Businesses looking to locate in Indiana see a 19th century local government structure, finding it too complicated and troublesome, Brinnegar said. But David Bottorff, executive director of the Association of Indiana Counties, disagrees.
“Nobody’s ever told me a company that didn’t come to Indiana because we have three commissioners,” he said.
According to Bottorff, lobbying groups like the Chamber want fewer local government officials because it’s easier to deal with fewer officials, some of them appointed, than with many elected ones.
Dan Combs, a township trustee in Monroe County, says the Indiana Chamber of Commerce has lobbied for local government reform for many years and now has captured the attention of the Governor. With less township government, the report and the Chamber argue, money will be saved and local taxes will be reduced.
But Combs says it’s not cost-efficient to do away with township government if the state wants to maintain the services offered.
“No one can point to any service by any township that’s redundant. A redundancy is a duplication of services. It’s just not there,” he said.
“If you get rid of townships, what is gained? No one can give us an answer, because if you want to keep the services, the cost is the same. If we want to restructure how the services are delivered, it’s going to cost more.”
Schultz said Kernan-Shepard’s provisions won’t cut services, despite its proposed elimination of hundreds, if not thousands, of local government officials.
“It’s not a question of cutting services, period. And Kernan Shepard is not really about savings, it’s more about having more efficient and uniform services,” she said
Fans of the report know the burden of proof in on them this upcoming session, even after Kernan Shepard-inspired legislation and referendums axed the jobs of all but 12 of the state’s 1008 township assessors, through a voter approved referendum in November.
But any further cuts to local government will be tougher, according to Rep. Pierce. He says legislators’ relationships with local government officials can’t be discounted.
“All of these local government officials that someone eliminate are the same people that show up at all your party functions, maybe they’ve worked on your campaigns, you see them a lot,” he said. “And so, you have to look them in the eye and say I don’t think your office or the job you’re doing is that important or can be done better someplace.”
Pierce said that’s a difficult thing for lawmakers to do, and a factor that no doubt, makes it harder for local government cutting legislation of any type to succeed.