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A good time to push for more local control

Wednesday, March 26, 2014 - 12:01 am

While the momentum for home rule is strong.

As we’ve noted often here, Indiana only reluctantly gives up power to city and county governments, taking one step back for every two forward on home rule. So it must be said that the just-concluded session of the General Assembly was a pretty good one for advocates of greater local control.

Voters in Allen County will be able to have a referendum on whether to keep the current form of government or go to one elected commissioner instead of three and a nine-member County Council with legislative powers. Voters in the six counties of greater Indianapolis will get to decide whether to spend money to expand mass transit. And all 92 counties will get to decide whether to keep or abandon the tax on business equipment.

Perhaps this would be a good time for city and council officials to call for a series of meetings with state officials to discuss the future of home rule. It’s time to take an overall look at the balance of state and local power with the idea of loosening as much state control as possible.

The local option for the business equipment tax offers a good illustration of why local control is better. Local officials have the specific knowledge of their needs and opportunities to make the best decision. Counties (such as Allen) heavily dependent on manufacturing will likely be reluctant to give up the equipment tax. Small and rural counties might want to abandon it as a way to attract industry. No state decision could serve both types of counties.

On fiscal matters especially it is important to give local governments maximum control. Let them decide what they need and set tax rates accordingly. If they go too far and tax too much, the voters will swiftly let them know. What business is it of the state?

Otis Bowen was a good governor and did many good things. In retrospect, his most famous achievement, the property tax freeze, may not have been one of them. It set the precedent we still suffer under today that the state is boss and cities and counties merely its servants.

State government has a lot on its plate, as evidenced by the large number of bills crammed into the short legislative session. It’s going to have even more as it struggles to cope with a bullying federal government. It can take a lot off its plate by not being the same kind of bully with state and local governments.