Morris: A Template for Slimming Hoosier Government
by Leo Morris
I apologize, but this is the time of year when I must do my annual beating-a-dead-horse ritual of imploring the Indiana General Assembly to go to every-other-year sessions.
The so-called “short” session was originally supposed to just involve a brief review of potential problems in the two-year budget. But it has become as active as the long session, so Hoosiers get twice the new government initiatives, which means twice the bureaucracy, twice the cost, twice the burden.
Unfortunately, this is the year for the budget-writing long session, which gives legislators 61 working days instead of 30 to create mischief. If 2021 is a typical long session, we can expect 1,500 to 1,800 new proposals. Honestly, does Indiana need that much fine-tuning?
The only saving grace this year is that the legislature will be so consumed by COVID-related crises that it might have little energy left over for creative mismanagement. Of course, many of the looming problems – for example, lower tax revenues from a collapsed economy and an education system in remote-learning shambles – were caused by the state itself, but let’s not dwell on that.
If Indiana were to get serious about slimming government, it could do worse than follow the example of LaGrange County, which recently made national news by “finally welcoming hippies.” What county officials actually did was repeal a 1971 law, apparently inspired by Woodstock, to regulate gatherings lasting more than 12 hours and involving more than 500 people.
It was typical snotty reporting – hick county in backward state finally enters the Age of Aquarius, har, har – that obscured a truly heroic three-year research effort by LaGrange County to identify and eliminate outmoded ordinances that had been on the books as long as 100 years.
If Indiana were to go that route, I could nominate many laws for the chopping block, including one that forbids catching fish “by hand only” and one that forbids the sale of cold soft drinks in liquor stores. We could also reconcile contradictory laws, including the ones that require seat belts but not motorcycle helmets even though the same arguments for and against apply in both cases.
The trend, however, seems to be going the other way, with the state emulating the federal government’s habit of passing so much legislation that ordinary citizens don’t even know what is legal or illegal on any given day.
If there was any doubt that Washington is completely beyond our control, the so-called “COVID relief bill” should have erased it. It has been called a $900 billion measure, but in reality was wrapped up in a $1.4 trillion omnibus bill including 12 appropriations bills, so we’re talking nearly $2.5 trillion in spending described in more than 5,000 pages introduced hours before the vote.
It is doubtful and a single legislator will ever know everything in the bill, and it is hoped that Americans who get a $600 check as part of the deal won’t care too much. Alas, that is probably true.
For now, the state seems not completely out of our control. For what it’s worth, I’m including a 9-point checklist I have used for years to weigh the merits of new state proposals:
- Is this really needed?
- Is government the best way to handle it?
- Is this level of government action the most appropriate?
- How much will it cost?
- Who will pay?
- What are the opportunity costs?
- What might be the unintended consequences?
- Who will benefit?
- Who will be hurt?
At least 90 percent of government proposals can be eliminated just by considering the first three questions. At this late date in our history, there just isn’t that much more new that needs done. When there is, and it’s a government responsibility, the lower level the better.
Using the other six criteria to dispassionately consider the costs and benefits, we can eliminate enough proposals to get us down to about a 1 percent pass rate. And to be honest, sometimes I think that’s 1 percent too many.
Leo Morris, columnist for The Indiana Policy Review, is winner of the Hoosier Press Association’s award for Best Editorial Writer. Morris, as opinion editor of the Fort Wayne News-Sentinel, was named a finalist in editorial writing by the Pulitzer Prize committee. Contact him at firstname.lastname@example.org.