INDIANAPOLIS — Getting property tax bills out on time may not seem like a headline-grabber, but for supporters of a sweeping government reform effort, it’s big news.
Four years ago, not a single county in Indiana hit the deadline for sending out tax bills that generate revenues needed to keep the gears of local government moving. The following year, only two did.
Last year, 90 of Indiana’s 92 counties made the deadline.
The difference has saved cities and schools millions in interest payments on tax anticipation loans while waiting for their counties to collect and hand over tax dollars.
State finance officials credit the dollars saved to a recommendation made back in December 2007 by the Indiana Commission on Local Government Reform.
The bipartisan commission spent months coming up with a road map to streamline local government. In a report that called for sweeping changes, it issued 27 recommendations — including the one that led to the consolidation of township assessors under the county and a shift to more professional assessment standards.
But only about one-third of those 27 recommendations have come to fruition since.
That’s not enough for Gov. Mitch Daniels, who created the commission. Talking to reporters last week — just two days after the Indiana General Assembly closed what will be Daniels’ last legislative session — the governor bemoaned the fact that much of the bipartisan commission’s recommendations have met a bipartisan wall in the Legislature.
“I continue to be disappointed that we didn’t get more than one-third done,” Daniels said.
That’s not how one of the men who headed the commission’s work sees it, though.
Retiring Indiana Supreme Court Chief Justice Randall Shepard is the Republican who co-chaired what became known as the “Kernan-Shepard commission” with former Gov. Joe Kernan, a Democrat.
He thinks progress on local government reform has been impressive, given the resistance to change a system put largely in place before Indiana became a state.
Shepard recalls a conversation with commission members just as they were getting ready to release the 2007 report that called for virtually eliminating township government while consolidating hundreds of school and library districts and imposing new rules for financial accountability.
One member said it would be a “miracle” if everything in the report got done. Shepard said the response from another commission member was: “‘It’ll be a miracle if anything gets done.’ ”
So in Shepard’s estimation, getting one-third done “is a pretty good outcome.”
In the session that just ended, lawmakers passed a bill with roots in the Kernan-Shepard recommendations: Aimed at eliminating conflicts of interest and reducing nepotism in local government, it bars a local government employee from taking office as an elected official of the government he or she works for. It also bans a local government employee from supervising a relative in a local government job.
Similar legislation failed in past sessions.