EVANSVILLE – Each year the Indiana legislature prides itself on reducing the size and scope of government, yet each session, including this one, that same legislature grabs more power from the hands of local municipalities. The message from Indianapolis is clear: The Statehouse knows best and mayors and town councils can’t be trusted to do what’s in their communities’ best interests. It is time we fundamentally change our approach.
    
Indiana’s Home Rule Act first passed in 1980 and generally grants municipalities the power to govern themselves as they see fit. The idea, modeled off the national principle of federalism, gives more choice, options, flexibility, and freedom to local leaders. Now those ideals are under greater attack than at any time since Hoosier home rule began.
    
In recent years the Indiana legislature handcuffed municipalities from setting a local minimum wage or from regulating housing, agricultural operations, worker schedules, or plastic bags. A move to preempt local rules for services like Airbnb failed to get out of the Indiana House, but it was a rare setback for the never-ending march to scale back home rule. This year legislators successfully banned local zoning rules for certain utility poles and undermined so-called “good neighbor ordinances.”
    
Good neighbor ordinances hold tenants accountable when they repeatedly inflict crimes and nuisances on their neighbors. The police can issue an eviction filing order after several violations, depending on the crime or nuisance, and the landlord must then initiate eviction proceedings. It’s one of the few tools communities have to address recurring crimes at rental properties by looping landlords into the process.
    
Senate Bill 558 does away with all of that by effectively banning this approach. Locals can no longer fine landlords and must generally absolve them of any responsibility. Once again, the Statehouse deemed its wisdom better than the cities and towns dealing first hand with chronic criminals at the same rental units.
    
A more high profile attack on home rule came in the form of Senate Bill 213 banning municipalities from regulating antennas and utility poles. Telecom giants want to convert from 4G technology to a 5G wireless network, which is 10 times faster. To help achieve that, SB213 gives them free reign to place “small cell tower” antennas on existing, or even new, utility poles in virtually any right-of-way.
    
Telecom giants understandably want to bring this technology to customers more cheaply, and legislators understandably want the state to be seen as business friendly. But instead of working with local governments to craft a sensible approach, legislators passed a one-size-fits-all bill that removes most local input.
    
A provision in the bill permitted cities to keep regulatory powers over the towers if, within eight days of SB213’s passage, they designated areas off-limit where there are underground utilities. The result was a chaotic few days with over 50 cities and towns rushing to pass sweeping ordinances declaring entire communities as underground zones. The whole affair provided a model of poor governance.
    
This debate isn’t really about small cell towers or good neighbor ordinances. It’s much bigger than that. This is about better governance, greater policy choices, and more flexibility. This is about reining in big, inefficient, unresponsive government and returning power to the people.
    
The state legislature singled out Bloomington’s annexation process by inserting language into the biennial budget bill that terminated the city’s proposed annexation and prohibited any related annexations for five years. The state could have let the process play out, or at least kept the decision making process in Monroe County. Instead the Statehouse pushed through a heavy-handed provision stripping locals of input.
    
Home rule should be Indiana’s fundamental vision for government. If we hope to keep Indiana a place for dynamic innovative government, home rule needs to be the framework that undergirds all our proposals.
    
Home rule need not be a partisan issue either. Liberals need to understand that a smaller state government doesn’t necessarily mean less government overall, it just means a government closer to the people. It means less concentration of power, and the right of local governments to grow or shrink according to the desires of the people who reside in the area. Meanwhile, conservatives need to understand that there are people in this state who do want robust regulatory checks, and that in regions where this desire is common, home rule will create one.
    
The Statehouse will not give up power voluntarily. The incentives, bureaucracy, power structures, and institutions in Indianapolis have all evolved to help state government acquire more power and influence over locals, not less. Citizens, and their mayors, councilors, and commissioners, will have to take this power. They will need to elect leaders who are willing to leave Indianapolis less powerful than it was when they arrived.
    
Hoosiers want a legislature that trusts them and their local communities, not paternalistic laws under the guise of leadership. But the latter is largely what they’ve gotten. State leaders need to offer Hoosiers real choice and a real vision for a better government. Dispersing government functions is the best way that Hoosiers, both conservatives and liberals, can achieve their policy goals.

Claybourn is an Evansville attorney.