Monday, January 09, 2006

House Republicans Unveil Agressive Government Reform Agenda

Indiana House Republicans unveiled an aggressive agenda for the 2006 legislative session today which includes a number of positive governmental reforms in the areas of governmental efficiency and modernization, eminent domain and redistricting. The plan did not provide many details but, in substance, offers some good public policy initiatives. Here’s some of what House Republicans are offering.

Governmental Efficiency and Modernization
The primary goal is to “give local officials tools necessary to eliminate multiple layers of government and duplication” ala Marion County’s Uni-Gov. The proposal does not lay out the specifics, but describes it as a “plan of merger and consolidation is prepared,” which requires a vote of each legislative body and a referendum by the voters of both entities. A statutory list of requirements for a “plan of merger”is to be provided.

That the House Republicans are supporting local government consolidation is a good thing, but the devil is in the details. If too many hoops must be jumped through to accomplish the consolidation, then the legislation may serve to hamstring more than assist local governments in achieving consolidation.

The plan also calls for the consolidation of assessing duties. The proposal is not specific, but if this means the elimination of elected township assessors and the assumption of their duties by professional tax administrators at the county level, it would be a great reform.

Eminent Domain
House Republicans are proposing changes to the state’s eminent domain law to make three new requirements: A property must meet one of the types of property eligible for condemnation, which includes a tightened up definition of “blighted area”; there must be no reasonable alternative to the proposed condemnation action; and the property taken by eminent domain must be used for a purpose other than to increase the tax base. The definition of “economic development” is clarified to exclude “increased taxes” as a public use, and provides that it must have a predominantly “public benefit” and any “private benefit” must be incidental.

This proposal does not appear to closely mirror HB 1010, which is being offered by Rep. Dave Wolkins, and which is in response to last year’s Supreme Court ruling upholding the constitutionality of local governments exercising eminent domain power to take land owned by one private property owner for a higher economic use by another private property owner. Masson’s Blog has a good discussion of HB 1010 here.

HB 1010 was approved unanimously by the House Judiciary Committee today with a retroactive date back to November 23, 2005. The retroactivity is intended to make the bill applicable to the eminent domain action the Indiana Stadium Authority filed late last year against the N.K. Hurst Co. to use the property for parking for the new Colts stadium. HB 1010, would among other things, require a local government to pay a proper owner 150% of the value of the property in many instances.

Redistricting Commission
A 5-member bi-partisan redistricting commission is also being proposed by the House Republicans. Each of the four legislative leaders would appoint one member to the commission and a fifth member would be appointed by the Chief Justice of the Supreme Court, with the latter’s appointment serving as the chairman of the commission.

According to the proposal, commission members would consider three criteria in creating legislative districts: population; contiguous territory; and compactness. To the extent possible, districts are to be drawn to protect political boundaries. The commission is to hold public hearing, take public comment and make recommendations to the legislature on the boundaries of state legislative and congressional districts. The General Assembly must meet to consider the recommendations of the commission before October 1 of a redistricting year, which occurs once every ten years after the decennial census by the federal government.

This proposal, which is a big step in removing politics from the redistricting process, does pose a couple of potential problems. Does the participation of a Supreme Court appointee as a member and chairman of the commission create a separation of powers problem? Also, the statutory criteria ignores minority representation concerns, which may pose another legal challenge to the idea.

This is indeed a welcome proposal. The last time the Republicans gained control of the House after the 1994 election, then-House Speaker Paul Mannweiler undertook a controversial effort to draw new districts which had been drawn after the 1990 decennial census when the Democrats were in control. That idea back-fired on the House Republicans and was eventually abandoned under a wave of bad publicity.

The House Republicans agenda also includes a number of changes to the property tax system, as well as a number of pro-business tax incentives. A detailed discussion of those items is omitted here, although they appear to pander too much to business special interests, and the property tax changes are really more of a tinkering around the edges of a bad system.

We offer the comment that the document House Republicans distributed does not do justice laying out what are some very good ideas. On a lighter note, Jim Shella’s Political Blog observes that a poster of the agenda standing next to House Speaker Brian Bosma during today’s press conference described it as the “2005” agenda rather than the “2006” agenda. A spokesman for Bosma attributed it to a printing error by Kinko’s after the press conference concluded Shella reports.

You can view a copy of the House Republicans 2006 agenda here.

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