Local Government Consolidation: An ‘Embarrassing’ Position

February 23, 2009

For release Feb. 25 and thereafter (487 words)
Strip away a multi-year, bigwig publicity campaign, complete with unctuous news coverage and a last-minute statewide tour, and the premise behind the move to consolidate local government is just this:  People in Indianapolis are smarter than the rest of us.

A chief GOP proponent now says he was “embarrassed” for those in his party who opposed the plan last week in committee. The comment implies that the “no” voters skipped their homework or were too dumb to understand economies of scale.

On the contrary, they had thought it through admirably. They may have even read a comprehensive survey of the academic literature showing mixed results for consolidation of local governments (1) or a forensic accounting that debunked not only the promised tax cuts but the savings touted in a typical consolidation campaign. (2)

In any case, Hoosiers want a more accountable government — not necessarily a more centralized one, however efficient it may be.

Sen. Jean Leising put the issue in perspective for her fellow senators: It is as if a U.S. president were telling the states to adopt a unicameral legislature.

“I bet you would be furious,” Leising was quoted as saying by the Fort Wayne Journal Gazette. “Honestly, this is kind of what we are doing to local government, saying ‘you guys don’t do things right, but we’re smart, and we suggest this is how you might start fixing things.'”

History is on the senator’s side. It tells us that “streamlining” government can mean making it larger and more difficult to monitor through democratic processes (Mussolini getting the trains to run on time). Indeed, the word “efficient” merely speaks to how resources are used, not the total amount of resources expended or, most certainly, who gets to expend them.

That is the reason a Ball State University study claiming $622 million in savings from consolidation could not be translated into per-capita tax cuts, only in more money for state officials to spend. It also is the reason the administration is wasting precious political will on this issue at a critical time in our state’s history.

In Alaska, one of the most backward states in the nation by the standards of the Kernan-Shepard report, a self-described hockey mom got elected mayor of a city with a budget little bigger than most Indiana townships.

From there, using nothing more efficient than her small-town common sense, Sarah Palin strung together a series of election victories that turned the power structure upside down.

And she didn’t have to eliminate a single elected public office to do it.

Now, you may be one of those who think it a bad idea to turn the power structure upside down from time to time. If so, consolidating local government is your ticket.

Many of us, though, will be trying to find a Hoosier version of Governor Palin . . . maybe in the office of a township trustee.

Craig Ladwig is editor of The Indiana Policy Review. Contact him at cladwig@inpolicy.org.

1. Sam Staley, Ph.D., et al. “To Consolidate or Not?” Indiana Policy Review, Winter 2006. (Registration required.)

2. Final Report of the Marion County Consolidation Study Commission. Indiana Legislative Services Agency, Indianapolis, November 2005.


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