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Monday, January 12, 2009

Daniels keeps pushing his reform plan

Daniels keeps pushing his reform plan

January 12, 2009

By John Byrne

Post-Tribune staff writer


Say what you want about Mitch Daniels' politics. You have to admire the guy's moxie.

Not content merely to try to shepherd a balanced state budget through the closely divided General Assembly during one of the state's worst financial slumps in memory, the governor has also charted a course this year toward reforming local government.

He insists the time is right to press ahead with recommendations in the Kernan-Shepard Report, the 2007 study that found the state's many levels of municipal, township and county government redundant and inefficient.

Daniels has set a precedent in the past for these ambitious legislative agendas, but he may find he has reached for a bridge too far this year.

Last year, the governor pushed a wide-ranging scheme to overhaul the state's revenue system by capping property taxes and raising the state sales tax.

The herd of cats in the Statehouse more or less went along with the plan then, and in one sense, Daniels is dealing from a position of even greater power in the 2009 legislative session.

He did just beat Jill Long Thompson easily to win a second term, even as Hoosiers flocked to the polls to elect Democrat Barack Obama.

Some would call that a mandate. But a mandate only gets you in the door in the legislature. You need some kind of a cudgel to keep a majority of 150 elected representatives in line for four months until the legislative session ends.

And 2008 was an election year. Daniels had the threat of angry voters to terrify any legislator considering standing against a plan designed to lower homeowners' property taxes. And he defined the debate early by announcing a detailed plan even before most lawmakers got to the capitol.

The governor again released an in-depth proposal this year, calling for the consolidation of small school districts, the replacement of county commissioners with a single executive officer and the elimination of all township government, among other sweeping changes.

Nobody's on the ballot in 2009, however, so lawmakers aren't feeling that itch to make their constituents happy.

And "Let's eliminate school districts" isn't exactly as powerful a rallying cry as "Let's lower property taxes."

Plus, the governor finds himself fighting a rearguard action to protect the 2008 property tax package.

The governor and most Republicans believe it essential for the General Assembly to pass tax caps again this year, the next step in getting them on the ballot so Hoosiers can vote on whether to enshrine them in the state constitution.

The Democrats have staked out the position that given the economic crisis and the fact the caps can't get on the ballot until 2010 in any event, it's smarter to wait a year to see if the state's finances stabilize before the legislature considers the caps again.

And already, key GOP lawmakers have tweaked the governor's government reform plan.

Senate President David Long, R-Fort Wayne, told reporters voters should have the ability to craft local government changes through ballot referendums.

Daniels was cool to the idea.

"First I'd observe that all this system, nobody had an option when it was put in place," Daniels said. "It was put in place in a uniform fashion way back when. And I think we'd really have to think through carefully, do you really want a hodge podge of different systems in different counties."

But he knows four months is a long time, and a lot can change before the end of April.

"Sen. Long's suggestion I thought was made in a constructive way," the governor added. "He's looking for ways to get a majority together, to get a consensus together, and that's exactly what I hope the legislative leaders would all do."

Contact John Byrne at (317) 631-7400 or jbyrne@post-trib.com.


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