Statehouse lawmakers can't seem to resist the temptation to challenge decisions made by their counterparts in local government. The current session finds more examples in bills aimed at county prosecutors and city council representatives.
Senate Bill 436, authored by Sen. Mike Young, R-Speedway, was a clear swipe at Democratic Marion County Prosecutor Ryan Mears, who announced last year he would no longer prosecute adults arrested for misdemeanor marijuana possession. Young filed legislation allowing the Indiana attorney general, or a special prosecutor appointed by the attorney general, to file charges and prosecute any case an elected prosecutor declines to enforce. It also stipulated the prosecution costs would be charged to the county, not the attorney general's office.
The bill cleared the Senate Corrections and Criminal Law Committee last week on a mostly party-line vote, but it wasn't called for a full Senate vote before this week's deadline for bills to be approved in their original chamber. Statehouse observers know that ill-advised legislation often resurfaces, however, and Young insists his bill was aimed at “social justice prosecuting,” not Mears' announcement.
Regardless, it represented an unwarranted attack on local decision-making. The Marion County prosecutor had said his office would devote its resources to prosecuting violent crime in Indianapolis, not misdemeanor marijuana cases.
Not a single person testified in favor of the bill at the Jan. 28 hearing, while many who testified against it said it undermined prosecutors' authority. David Powell of the Indiana Prosecuting Attorneys Council noted he filed the death penalty three times in his 20 years as Greene County prosecutor.
“I know of (elected prosecutors) who would never file the death penalty because they don't believe in it – should they be removed from office?” he asked the committee. “Prosecutors have to make very, very difficult decisions. It's the toughest job in government; we're criticized for every decision we make.”
Another bill targeting local decision-making is advancing. House Bill 1065 would change the voting procedure for local income tax councils, making it more difficult for elected officials in more populous cities to increase the local income tax rate for an entire county. Critics claim the current process represents taxation without representation. But former Fort Wayne City Councilman John Crawford, who shepherded Allen County's 2017 increase through the process, said that is not the case.
“You simply lose if the other side has more votes, like any election,” he wrote in an email. “How you apportion out the votes and rules will always be perceived as unfair by some factions. Right now, most counties don't have a major city so county officials' votes control LIT tax, and city officials' votes in those counties don't have an effect. If (the) law changed as contemplated, as soon as some combination reaches 50.1% all other votes of remaining officials will have no effect.”
Crawford noted local officials have used their authority judiciously: in 2013 “to maintain essential services after property tax caps gutted local budgets” and in 2017 to invest in sidewalk and alley improvements and riverfront development “which were popular and will benefit entire region.”
“It's not broke,” the former Republican councilman wrote. “Fort Wayne and Allen County are prospering and have one of lowest tax rates of surrounding counties. The proposed fix is only a different formula and no better. So we should leave it alone.”
Better yet, lawmakers should leave local elected officials to their work. Voters have entrusted those officials to make decisions and have the opportunity to remove them from office if they don't like those decisions. The micromanaging from the Statehouse must stop.