The Indiana Conference of Mayors has a worthy goal for the coming session of the General Assembly: getting the state to return more control to local governments, giving them the flexibility and resources to solve more of their own problems.
The “Trust Local” campaign, says Whiting Mayor Joe Stahura, president of the mayors' conference, is not meant to pit local and state governments against each other but to make them better partners. “We don't want them fighting home front battles in the Statehouse,” Stahura says. “Let us handle the local stuff at home. Zoning issues, water rights, financial flexibility, there's thousands of those issues we can handle. We don't need the help.”
If anything, the campaign might seem to lack ambition – local control is being sought only for three issues. The mayors want to reallocate some of the state's gas tax revenues so they can decide on their own road and street improvements. They want to give local governments the power to make banks maintain foreclosed properties. And they want the ability to deal with the meth epidemic by requiring prescriptions for anything containing pseudoephedrine.
But this is a start. Local control wasn't lost all at once – as Stahura says, there has been “a disturbing trend” for years of the state acquiring more and more power. Local control won't be regained all at once, either. “Trust” is built, not demanded.
To put this in perspective, before 1980 there wasn't much home rule in Indiana. That year, the General Assembly made changes that theoretically gave cities and counties more power. Instead of continuing to let local governments have only the “powers granted by statute,” they would be allowed to exercise “all the powers that they need for the effective operation of government as to local affairs.”
That gave cities and counties just enough power to want more. But for every issue local governments won control over, there seemed to be two where the state took it back. It's been a tug of war ever since.
If Trust Local works out, local and state government representatives might want to have a discussion about how which units should have what powers. A comprehensive approach is far better than making cities and counties beg for every crumb of control.
And the more local, the better. Local officials have the most knowledge about their own problems. And they are closest to the voters, who can easily toss them out if they make bad decisions. State officials are quick to complain about federal bullying. They should take a lesson and make the state less of a bully.