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The Journal Gazette

Monday, April 17, 2017 1:00 am

Micromanagement could spread to Indiana

Home-rule helicoptering

Contact info

For state representatives: 1-800-382-9842

For state senators: 1-800-382-9467

Mailing address: 200 W. Washington St., Indianapolis, IN 46204

The Wall Street Journal reported last week that states are trying a new approach to curbing the powers of local governments.

Florida, Texas and Pennsylvania, the Journal reported, are considering “broad-based approaches to block city ordinances, rather than fighting cities on specific issues like minimum-wage rules. Arizona has already enacted such a rule.”

Given the general legislative hostility toward what used to be known as “home rule,” it's not too early to worry about whether Indiana could be far behind.

“Proponents say these wide-ranging bills are a way to get ahead of a flurry of local actions around the country, such as a plastic-bag levy in New York City, a paid sick-leave requirement in Philadelphia and ride-sharing regulations affecting companies such as Uber,” the Journal reported. Advocates say the new omnibus approach will help states smooth the regulatory environment for businesses. Detractors say it's about power and politics.

The lure of interceding on decisions better left to municipalities is a temptation to which Hoosier legislators frequently succumb.

Last year, the legislature turned aside from weightier matters to head off an effort by environmental activists to ban plastic bags in Bloomington. Now, cities in Indiana are forbidden even to limit or tax the use of such bags. Also in 2016, Rep. Matt Lehman, R-Berne, shepherded through a bill to smooth the way for Uber and other ride-sharing services. That the measure overrode local ordinances in places such as Fort Wayne didn't seem to matter. 

This year, the Senate and House are working to finalize a bill that would stop municipalities from prohibiting Airbnb-style short-term rentals and sent a proposal to prevent localities from regulating the size and placement of cellphone companies' transmission towers to a summer study committee.

“Opposing politics are often in play” when states attempt to squelch measures better left to local control, the Journal wrote, occurring when one party controls the legislature and the governor's office. As is the case in Indiana, most of those situations today involve Republicans, but both parties have been guilty of trying to override localities.   

Win Moses Jr., a Democrat who's seen the issue as a Fort Wayne mayor and as a state representative, said Friday it's been at least two decades since the legislature routinely honored the home-rule concept. Since then, finding compromise between the need for statewide predictability and the rights of communities to determine their own rules has been difficult.

An exception, Moses said, was in 2007, when legislators from both parties coalesced around a bill he wrote to return some power to local communities to regulate fireworks. A law passed the previous year had prevented communities from regulating fireworks 365 days a year. But Moses argued that standards should be allowed to vary. A French Lick, Indiana, official told him, for instance, that it was normal to hear firecrackers exploding every day there. “The needs aren't the same in French Lick as in the center of Fort Wayne,” Moses said.

Through the former mayor's efforts, the bill was amended to allow communities to regulate fireworks except for several days before and after July 4 and on New Year's Eve. The new law was not a full-throated endorsement of home rule, but “that's the closest we've come to reaching a compromise,” he said.  

“The legislature likes to think of itself as a super city council,” Moses said. “But there is not a one-size fits all.” 

Moses believes the revival of community activism on a broad range of issues may help revive the concept of local control. “I see a ray of optimism, driven by frustration,” he said. “I think that there is a chance that those things will spring back.”