INDIANAPOLIS | Prospects are slim that any of the 13 recommendations to reform local government, detailed in the Kernan-Shepard Report, will become law during the upcoming session of the Indiana General Assembly.
The seeming urgency that accompanied the report's 2007 release has long since dissipated at the Statehouse, and the push by former Gov. Mitch Daniels for major changes in the structure and duties of local governments hasn't been embraced by his successor, Gov. Mike Pence.
"I have not heard any discussion about any of the Kernan-Shepard recommendations that might be bubbling up in the way of legislation this time around," said state Sen. Ed Charbonneau, R-Valparaiso. The Legislature convenes Jan. 6 for a four-month session.
Charbonneau said while he believes the 27 reform recommendations made by former Gov. Joe Kernan, a Democrat, and then-Chief Justice Randall Shepard, a Republican, are good ideas, he admitted they aren't easy to pass -- in part because a lot of state lawmakers got their starts in local government posts proposed to be eliminated.
"From an implementation standpoint, they're really tough to move through the Legislature," Charbonneau said. "They're not issues that people don't have feelings about -- they're pretty emotional on both sides."
House Democratic Leader Scott Pelath, D-Michigan City, agreed. He said Daniels, a Republican, almost always got what he wanted from the General Assembly during his eight years in office, but repeatedly failed to win approval for local government reform.
"You cannot dispute that he had a very clear agenda and accomplished most of it. What is the one part of his agenda that fell flat on its face year after year, after year, after year? Kernan-Shepard," Pelath said. "He got nowhere with it."
Pelath said most Hoosiers likely agree with the report's findings that there are an excessive number of local governments in the state, often duplicating services at high cost to taxpayers, but voters aren't yet willing to pull the trigger on getting rid of them.
"The truth is: they'd like to be able to elect more people, rather than fewer," Pelath suggested.
"It doesn't mean they're going to show up at the polls, but they don't want those choices taken away from them."
Overall, five of the Kernan-Shepard recommendations were fully implemented, nine partially implemented and 13 not at all implemented.
The approved measures generally were non-controversial, including barring local government employees from serving as elected officials of units they work for, shifting school board elections to even years, giving counties oversight of local unit budgets, moving child welfare funding to the state, and encouraging joint purchases by libraries.
The most significant proposed changes, such as eliminating township government; having most county officials be appointed instead of elected; getting rid of two out of three county commissioners; consolidating small school corporations; and setting up a single public safety agency per county, found little support in the Statehouse.
Nevertheless, the recommendations of the Kernan-Shepard Report still are sometimes on the minds of state legislators.
Newly elected state Rep. Mike Aylesworth, R-Hebron, and state Rep. Vernon Smith, D-Gary, are members of the House Local Government Committee, which reviews any legislation proposing changes to the structure of local government.
Aylesworth said he won't be sponsoring any legislation inspired by the Kernan-Shepard Report, but he'd approach seriously any proposals along those lines.
"I certainly will entertain any legislation that's relevant to the Kernan-Shepard Report, because we as a state need to continually improve delivery of services," Aylesworth said. "I think some of those items in that report are very valuable in improving those services and delivery to our customer, which is the voting public, taxpayers."
Shepard is set to lead a second look at local communities over the next two years, including Indiana's 2016 bicentennial year, in partnership with former Lt. Gov. Kathy Davis, a Democrat, and the Indiana University Public Policy Institute.
Unlike the top-down Kernan-Shepard Report, the “Policy Choices for Indiana’s Future: Thriving Communities, Thriving State" project aims to identify what makes the state's urban, suburban and rural communities excel in workforce development and education; sustainability and the environment; infrastructure; health, arts, amenities and recreation; and local government finance.
“Through this project, we are giving residents, community leaders and elected officials an inside perspective of what’s going on and what options exist to enhance our current direction," said Mark Lawrance, director of the IU Public Policy Institute. “We hope our research helps inform community discussions about Indiana’s future that will take place during 2016 and beyond."