Patronage versus Progress

Whoever said “The more things change, the more they stay the same,” was probably thinking of Indiana.

Governor Mitch Daniels recently held a press conference at which he addressed the critical challenges now facing our state. He was flanked by former Governor Joe Kernan, a Democrat, and Indiana Chief Justice Randall Shepard, a Republican. The message was simple and direct: Indiana’s looming fiscal crisis makes adoption of the Kernan-Shepard Commission recommendations especially urgent.

The response of Indiana elected officials was dispiriting, to put it mildly. According to the Indianapolis Star, “ County officials said they don’t want to give up their elected positions. School boards stressed that they oppose forced consolidation. And House Speaker B. Patrick Bauer said the General Assembly has more pressing matters to consider next year than ‘an academic’s view of how government should operate, without any consideration given to whether such ideas are practical, or even feasible, in the real world.’”

Bauer’s comment, in particular, reminded me why the late Harrison Ullmann used to call the Indiana General Assembly “The World’s Worst Legislature.” It also reminded me of a lengthy conversation I had some years ago with George Geib, Indiana’s pre-eminent political historian. As he told me then, what really drives Indiana’s political culture is not ideology, but patronage.

Patronage and political self-interest have kept Indiana’s government bloated, costly and inefficient. In fact, the only good thing you can say about our resistance to modernization is that the effort to keep state government mired in the late 1800s has been entirely bipartisan—a lonely example of co-operation in our otherwise polarized politics.

It is understandable that people whose jobs are on the line would resist efforts to bring Indiana into the 21st century. But it was Pat Bauer’s snide dismissal of the Kernan-Shepard recommendations as “academic” that provided us with a perfect example of what is wrong with the Indiana General Assembly.

Leaving aside the use of the word “academic” to mean nonsensical (okay, I’m a bit sensitive there!), how many overlapping units of government does Bauer’s “real world” need? Indiana has 3100 units of government, run by 10,300 people paid for with our tax dollars. We have more counties than California. The reforms recommended by the Commission have long characterized government in most other states.

Maybe this slicing and dicing of jurisdictions into so many small units made sense when it took half a day (by horse) to reach the county seat. But in the “real world” I live in, it takes half an hour or less. Increasingly, I don’t need to travel at all; I can renew many permits and obtain needed information online.

The Kernan-Shepard Commission studied Indiana’s multiple levels of government, held hearings around the state, reviewed reforms instituted elsewhere in “the real world” and issued recommendations of 27 ways to cut waste, become more efficient, increase accountability and save tax dollars.

Government officials are supposed to work for us. Thanks to Indiana’s entrenched patronage, we seem to be working for them.