If you thought efforts to consolidate local government had slowed down in the recent legislative session, you would be wrong. The legislators stopped their progress and made consolidation harder.
Senate Enrolled Act 343 requires a consolidation proposal to be separately approved by voters in each jurisdiction, rather than in a single election. Opponents of an unsuccessful 2012 effort to merge local government in Evansville and Vanderburgh County joined Gov. Mike Pence in the bill-signing ceremony this month, celebrating passage of a law that will likely ward off the next effort to deliver services more efficiently in southwest Indiana, in northeast Indiana or anywhere else.
The fact that the Vanderburgh opponents won their fight by a 2-to-1 margin last year is evidence the legislation was unnecessary. The next consolidation effort will face almost insurmountable odds, regardless of its merit.
Under a provision pushed by the Vanderburgh County Farm Bureau, a merger of city and county government would require county residents living outside of the city to constitute one voting group and county residents within the city another. City residents, who pay both city and county taxes, essentially would be denied a vote as county residents.
Mark Lawrance, senior vice president for the Indiana Chamber of Commerce, said the process for consolidating township and county government, established in 2006, already was difficult to implement. Since the law went into effect, only three mergers have been approved. He said S.B. 343 was pushed in the last session as a tool for reorganization when, in fact, it will make it more difficult.
An effort to change the structure of county government in Allen County also was blocked in the last session. Senate Bill 475, made specific to Allen County after objections were raised by county officials statewide, would have allowed the county commissioners to adopt an ordinance to change the executive and legislative structure of county government, with approval of a majority of voters. It would have created a single county executive and a seven-member council with legislative duties.
The House voted to send the issue to a summer study committee.
I think it’s totally unnecessary to study this further, Lawrance said. This issue has been studied time and again. We think what the legislature is almost saying is, we want county government the way we have it right now – we don’t want counties to have the option to try another way of organizing.
The new law is a disappointing hurdle to local government reorganization. Since the Kernan-Shepherd local government reorganization recommendations were released in 2007, the state has made small but encouraging steps toward changing a government framework designed for the 19th century. Changing the rules to discourage an honest effort to eliminate duplication and improve efficiency is a step backward.