Tag Archives: Township Government

Salience

Wednesday, Emmis Communication’s chief Jeff Smulyan came in to address my class in “Media and Public Affairs.” It was a wide-ranging discussion, focusing primarily upon current business  challenges posed by changing technologies, consolidation of ownership and the like, as well as the contemporary policy environment. When a student asked why it was so difficult to pass laws even when those measures were favored by significant majorities of the electorate, Jeff’s response pointed to the importance of salience.

Salience simply means the importance we attach to a particular issue. We have an excellent example of its importance here in Indiana; when Governor Daniels convened the Kernan-Shepard Commission to study government reorganization, one of its recommendations was elimination/consolodation of Indiana’s 1008 townships. Townships are an artifact of the days when travel to the county seat (by horseback) took half a day. Their responsibilities have steadily shrunk, and today they do little but run (some) fire departments and administer (with documented inefficiency) poor relief. Poll after poll confirmed that most Indiana voters agreed with the Commission. Abolishing townships should have been a no-brainer–except we still haven’t managed to do so.

Why? Salience, that’s why.

Although a large majority of voters agreed that townships should go–that they wasted money better used elsewhere–it was a rare individual for whom this was a burning issue. For the Township Trustees and members of their Advisory Boards, however, it was issue #1. Eliminating townships would eliminate the livliehoods of the Trustees (and the relatives many of them employ). It would eliminate the inflated fees paid to many Advisory Board members for attending three or four meetings a year. They focused like lasers on lawmakers, marshalling their forces, bringing in people to testify, hiring lobbyists and calling in political favors. For them, the issue was salient. And we still have townships.

In Washington, this same scenario plays over and over. Most of us disapprove of the special tax breaks that benefit Big Oil, but how many of us have written or called our Senators or Representatives about it? Spent money lobbying for repeal? Very few. But Big Oil (and Big Pharma and Big Banking, etc.) certainly have. It’s not unexpected that people will rally to defend their financial interests, but when those with lots of resources focus those resources on derailing a proposed bill, the likely result is that the bill will be derailed.

On those rare occasions when one of these issues becomes salient to a sizable number of voters, it’s possible to win these contests. The issue is: how do you make “good government” salient?

A Light Begins To Dawn…

It has been nearly four years since the Kernan-Shepard Commission, a bipartisan group of Indiana leaders, studied the structure of Indiana government and issued a report.  A genuinely bipartisan effort, the commission was led by former Governor Joe Kernan and Chief Justice Randall Shepard, who accepted the task at the request of Governor Mitch Daniels.

The Commission’s recommendations were sensible, but hardly novel or surprising.  As I noted at the time, “It is telling that the Commission’s recommendations closely mirrored those made by Gov. Paul McNutt—in 1936.  Never let it be said that Hoosiers rush into anything.”

Decisions about structuring Indiana government made in 1816 and 1851 are still in effect, and as a result, Indiana citizens pay for, and are governed by, more than 10,300 local officials. The state “boasts” 3,086 separate governing bodies, hundreds of which have taxing authority. When we compare Indiana to 11 other states our size, we have more levels of government than all but two of them.

In Indiana, we don’t put tax revenues to work enhancing our quality of life. Instead, we use them to pay for 1008 Township Trustees and other officeholders we no longer need. And despite the credentials of those who served on the Kernan-Shepard Commission, despite polls that show large majorities of Indiana citizens supporting elimination of Township Trustees, our legislature has stubbornly refused to act—and many of us have scratched our heads, wondering why.

An article in this morning’s Star may offer a clue.

A previous story had reported that the Township Trustee in Hamilton County had paid 10,000 (from tax monies!) for seats at the gala opening of Carmel’s new Palladium Opera House. This morning’s story noted that the Trustee’s lawyer had advised him to repay the money. And who was that lawyer? None other than Brian Bosma—Speaker of the Indiana House.

That reminded me of something I was told by a Kernan-Shepard commissioner a couple of years ago.  He noted that several of the Trustees paid large sums of money with some regularity to well-connected lawyers, for “legal services.” Given the relatively simple legal issues Trustees deal with, he concluded that what they were purchasing was clout—political insurance, you might say—rather than legal counsel.

Ya’ think?