Government Reform: Oxymoron or Can It Happen?
I remember when I first worked in Washington, D.C. for a congressional committee almost eight years ago. It was the Committee on Government Reform. It was easy to crack jokes about government and reform. People would ask “Isn’t that an oxymoron?” and it would be easy to laugh. In recent years it has been that particular committee that has had some doozies when it come to “government reform” including looking into steroids in baseball. How do steroids in baseball coincide with government reform? You’ve got me. But since my days working for the committee, I’ve tried to keep an eye out for how government works to reform itself. In Indiana, it has taken drastic steps.
In an effort to cut costs, streamline government and more importantly, save tax payer dollars in a struggling economy, Indiana Governor Mitch Daniels has taken bold initiative in his agenda this year, that would eliminate township government, make several of the county elected positions appointed, call for a single elected county executive instead of three county commissioners (that currently act a legislative and executive body) as well as many other moves meant to streamline local government.
Why such broad sweeping changes?
Because of a recent property tax debacle in Indiana in which some property taxes went up by 400 and 500 percent, Governor Mitch Daniels put together a blue-ribbon bi-partisan commission to look at ways to bring down property tax costs and streamline township and county government. This group was headed by former Governor Joe Kernan and Indiana Chief Justice Randall Shepard. It became known as the Kernan-Shepard Commission.
After spending months talking with citizens, elected officials and pouring over reports from the Department of Local Government Finance concerning Indiana’s 92 counties and 1,008 townships, they realized that Indiana needed major reform on county and local levels of government. They were also astonished at the shear number of elected officials in Indiana which included 3,100 units of local government and the more than 10,000 officials! The number of elected officials was more than California, Texas and New York combined! In the end, they came up with twenty seven recommendations for streamlining local government.
Because taxes were fresh on everybody’s minds, from the voters to the legislators, that meant tackling how property taxes are assessed was the top priority. In the end, the Indiana General Assembly took one of the recommendations of the Kernan-Shepard Commission and passed legislation that eliminated 965 of the 1,008 township assessors leaving forty-three in the largest townships up for elimination in a November ballot referendum. Thirty of the forty three remaining township assessors were eliminated by the voters.
Now Indiana hasn’t been known as a state ready to embrace change. That’s why, in an effort to further push more government reform, Governor Daniels said in his most recent State of the State address:
After a year of listening to you, to local officials, and to our fellow citizens, I have sent you a package comprising some two-thirds of the Commission’s 27 recommendations, either as proposed or in some close variation. Treat it as a starting point, but please treat it seriously, in a spirit of reform. This area is ideally suited to bipartisan cooperation and craftsmanship. Let’s move forward together, and boldly. The only motion out of order is no motion at all.
In an all-too-typical criticism, one author wrote “Hoosiers have been resisting change since the first settlers arrived.” Bringing local and school government out of the pioneer days will provide conclusive proof that we truly have left such a self-defeating outlook in the history books where it belongs.
But there is another side to this story. Many feel that the elimination of the township government and appointment of certain county officials amounts to less accountability and a power structure of top-down rather than bottom-up when it comes to government.
Most recently, David Bortoff, Executive Director of the Association of Indiana Counties had this to say:
Taxpayers should be wary of efforts to eliminate county elected government officials and replace elected positions with appointed people. If it comes down to democracy vs. appointed bureaucracy, the choice seems abundantly clear: democracy. A commission appointed by the Governor to find efficiencies in government recommends doing away with many county elected officials. The report has some positive recommendations but eliminating the opportunity for taxpayers to serve their communities is not one of them. One size or form of government does not fit all communities.
The Shepard-Kernan report on local government has some proposals that will create efficiencies, save money or reduce property taxes by shifting funding to the state. Some of the proposals were enacted during the 2008 session of the General Assembly with the support of county elected officials. However, eliminating elected officials and replacing them with appointed people will make county government less accountable and more expensive. Appointed people usually demand a higher salary than people who are elected.
To be fair, appointment is not tantamount to elimination. And under Governor Daniels recommendations, only the county coroner, surveyor and treasurer would be appointed. The Sheriff, Prosecutor, and Auditor would remain elected positions. Two of the the three commissioners, as I mentioned before, would be eliminated.
Could anything like this happen at the Federal level? With more levels of bureaucracy to weed through, true reform could be hard to come by. That said, it’s not impossible. But one things for certain, reform is possible even though Indiana is in the process of going through it right now. Indiana is far from finished, but it’s moving in the right direction.
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