In 2007, a biparti-san commis-sion named by Gov. Daniels declared that Indiana is “mired in an 1850s reality that’s cumber-some, redundant and complex.” The commission urged a restructuring of county government and the elimination of townships altogether. It was the one big thing Gov. Daniels wanted from the Legislature that he didn’t achieve.
One-third of 27 recommendations issued by the Kernan-Shepard commission became reality, but the radical ones proved too controversial.
Local government reform will not be a front-burner issue in the 2012 governor’s race. Indiana has 3,086 local governments and 10,000 officeholders — a potent political force in opposition to government restructuring.
Republican candidate Mike Pence said he’s been meeting with many of them to look for another approach. “The dialogue I’ve begun in the last six months particularly with local officials is: Are there reforms we can embrace that would permit local, county, township and municipal governments to consolidate back-office functions without compromising front-office accessibility?”
“I’m a small-town guy, grew up in Columbus, got a cornfield in my backyard, still . . . I understand the value people put on accessibility to local government. I also understand there are redundancies, there are excesses, there are distortions.”
Democrat John Gregg said Indiana should get its own house in order before telling local governments how to improve theirs. He suspects there’s room for consolidation and combining of agencies within state government and perhaps elimination of obsolete boards.
Gregg said he believes in modernizing government but was bothered that the commission failed to solicit input from those affected. One of the more-contested proposals would have transferred duties of the county auditor, treasurer, recorder, assessor, surveyor, sheriff and coroner to a single-county executive and his appointees. Folks in those positions should have been consulted, he said.
“I’m not saying it wasn’t bipartisan. What I’m saying is it wasn’t inclusive of people who actually had local-government experience. It’s a fair question to ask why we elect certain officers. Should there be certain criteria for them?”
Less complicated for the candidates than township reform is their position on taxes. They plan to cut them. Neither has specifics yet.
“I think one has to be a realist,” Gregg said. “We saw in Washington, D.C., how in the early part of this decade we had these massive tax cuts and then we had massive spending at the same time … When you’re cutting taxes and you keep spending like a 16-year-old with mom and dad’s credit card, it’s a recipe for disaster.”
“Every Hoosier alive, dead and not yet born wants to pay less in taxes,” Gregg said. “No-brainer. I have no problem with that. We’ve got to be open, transparent and real honest if we’re going to cut these various taxes. How’s it going to affect us? If we’re going to cut taxes, where’s the money going to come from?”
Pence said he’s studying several options for tax reform including lowering sales, income and/or business personal-property taxes. Any tax cut would be aimed at increasing competitiveness.
“I’m someone who’s always believed that lower, flatter, fairer rates invite investment and growth.”
Indiana’s business climate scored a sixth-place finish nationally in Site Selection magazine’s 2011 rankings. Area Development magazine rated it best in the Midwest and fifth overall in the U.S.
It could be better, Pence said.
“Indiana is a relatively low-tax state but we’re an all-of-the-above tax state. Almost all the states that rate higher than us for investment that creates jobs are states that either have no income tax or dramatically lower taxes in one area or another.”
Gregg said, “We’re tied with a lot of other states with the highest sales tax in the country. My question is: How did we get to be highest in the nation, because we’re a pretty conservative state.”
With the election still seven months away, the issues – if not all the answers – are coming into focus.
• Andrea Neal is a teacher at St. Richard’s Episcopal School in Indianapolis and adjunct scholar with the Indiana Policy Review Foundation. Contact her at email@example.com.