Call it a clash of political philosophies – on one side a devotion to the Jeffersonian tenet that “the best government is that which governs least” versus a belief that local decisions are best made by local authorities.
The former clearly prevails in the Indiana General Assembly, where the latest example finds a study committee endorsing legislation to prohibit communities from regulating short-term property rentals through services like Airbnb.
Committee Chairman Mark Messmer, a Jasper Republican, said cities with existing ordinancesshould be allowed to maintain them, but there should be no reason for local governments to prohibit residents from listing properties through short-term rental services.
“We're not here to represent the local government; we're here to represent the people who elected us,” Messmer said Monday, insisting a person's home was “about as local as home rule gets.”
But Sen. Tim Lanane, an Anderson Democrat, said he trusts local governments to balance the rights of a homeowner with those of neighboring property owners.
“Every time we put another limit into the powers of local government, we're just undermining the whole theory and idea of local control,” he said.
“A couple of areas that we have historically said that we do reserve for local government is the area of zoning and planning. And this just weakens that.”
Mark Luttik, general manager of the Hilton Fort Wayne, was among those who submitted written testimony to the committee.
“Airbnb operators should be held to the same standard traditional lodging providers are,” Luttik wrote. “Hotels remit an innkeepers tax based on retail room pricing that is used to fund county visitor bureaus that in turn promote destinations, as well as investments in local destinations such as convention centers and other marketing efforts. Airbnb operators benefit from this investment; it is only fair they make investments similar to the established operators.”
The study committee's recommendation was approved by an 8-3 vote. The only northeast Indiana representative on the committtee, Rep. Bob Morris of Fort Wayne, joined his Republican colleagues in supporting the prohibition on regulations.
While a study committee's recommendation is not binding, there's a strong likelihood the full legislature will follow suit. If it does, the short-term rental measure joins a growing list of powers the General Assembly has expressly seized from local units of government. Among them:
• Regulation of fireworks
• Establishment of a local minimum wage
• Ability to restrict placement of “small-cell” utility towers
• Authority to ban plastic bags
“It's just an honest-to-goodness disagreement over what should be the powers of local units to control these matters,” Lanane said Monday. “Just as we take a lot of umbrage, at times, to the federal government coming in with their heavy hand and telling us what we should be doing as states – and we get our backs up and we assert states' rights. I think you can say the same thing on behalf of local governments.”
Indiana's Home Rule Act of 1980 would seem to support broad home rule authority, but it actually set forth a long list of restrictions, according to a policy brief by the Indiana Public Policy Institute. Under one-party control at the legislature, those restrictions are expanding, with an inevitable conflict over the “honest-to-goodness disagreement” Lanane noted.
The upcoming election year is a good opportunity to weigh the philosophical arguments involved. Has the General Assembly gone too far in placing restrictions on local government? Is it good policy to establish statewide controls on a wide range of measures? Is the legislature wisely regulating regulation?
Let the debate begin.