INDIANAPOLIS – For those Hoosiers concerned with COVID-19’s effects on our communities and economy, could there be anything as disheartening as the energy and resources spent on the legal squabble among Gov. Eric Holcomb, Attorney General Todd Rokita, and the General Assembly?

Since the spring, suit and countersuit have litigated – ostensibly – the constitutionality of the proper authority to invoke emergency powers. But it’s often felt more like intra-party posturing, a distraction displacing mature descriptions of the inevitable trade-offs involved in calibrating the separation of powers.

At least as expressed so far, the anger surrounding emergency powers has little basis in a principled alternative understanding of the relationship between the legislative and executive branches. The standoff risks becoming, then, the latest expression of inchoate anti-establishment outrage in which “government control” becomes an empty signifier. Whichever partisan faction wins, Hoosiers lose.

This is all the more frustrating given the vital importance of intelligently grappling with intra-governmental relations, a set of issues that had been simmering long before the pandemic ignited a turf war.

On the one hand, Indiana’s nascent commitment to thinking (and funding) regionally raises questions about the coordination of such activities via the legislative or executive branch. And, zooming in to the relations among locals, the best guess is we will be muddling through the issues surrounding the Indy-doughnut counties nexus for some time. Besides these questions surrounding “horizontal” government control, the “vertical” dimension is equally in flux – that is, securing the right relationship between local and state power. 

Each of these policy areas has grown thornier as a result of the public health crisis, a catastrophe seemingly engineered to inflame fundamental questions of government control. And to be fair, it’s not just Indiana that’s suffering through an unedifying power struggle; states across the union are confronting renewed challenges of federalism in miniature as they have sought to respond to COVID-19 and as they now seek to deploy recovery funds.

So in spite of itself, the Rokita-Holcomb feud raises a set of issues long overdue for serious consideration. But to do so properly, we need debate consisting in rootedness in first principles, a comparative perspective, and a willingness to remain open to the evidence.

A new vision for Indiana intergovernmental relations might proceed from the following three principles:

First, intra-state intergovernmental relations must be guided by consistency. This means that the logic undergirding the settled arrangements of power location cannot be altered when inconvenient for one’s party; principle must precede politics. At its best, the separation of powers allows for greater accountability and renders governing tension productive. But that only works when consistent.

The tendency to do otherwise is one root of the breakdown of regular political order and, worse, a major contributor to government’s massive trust deficit. Responsible leaders don’t extol local control only until a given locality exercises its due sovereignty in a way that offends partisan-political expediency.

Second, and relatedly, Indiana’s internal government relations must command legitimacy from the general population. It is not enough to design institutional power relations and then, belatedly, try to sell them to the public (or more likely, fail to mention them at all). The principles must be clearly explained to the public. But before that, Hoosiers must be meaningfully involved in all levels of conversation. Political change, if that is what citizens desire, only becomes stable and enduring when it results from inclusive consultation and principled deliberation.

Finally, we should recognize that intergovernmental relations can be flexible with respect to the issue at hand. We have to recognize that greater coordination, centralization, or regionalization of power on one issue need not entail a similar dynamic for all.

To return to the charged relationship between Indy and its suburbs, one way of making progress is to jettison the false dichotomy between “Indy controls everything” and “every locale for itself.” In addition to lowering the political stakes for any single issue domain, and thus making change more salable to politicians as well as residents, we can make progress by allowing the logic of efficiency internal to each issue to guide the way.

I think it’s clear that a regional strategy surrounding transit, for example, demands greater coordination across the relevant entities. But perhaps control and funding for local health provision is more usefully disaggregated.

I write this much more in the spirit of dialogue invitation rather than policy pronouncement. These are hard questions: Thinking through the proper relations among branches and levels of government – these various vessels of public authority – was more than enough to keep James Madison and the other constitutional framers up at night. Humility is warranted. (Readers with legal backgrounds will no doubt already quibble with even the highly stylized sketch I have provided here.)

But it’s also a chance to rethink an issue central to public trust at a time when the pandemic has shaken this foundation here and across the country. Here’s a chance to position Indiana on the back of this dark era for even greater national leadership. 

Jay Ruckelshaus is a Rhodes Scholar now researching and writing in Indianapolis.