Cook Group, among other groups and local government agencies, is partially responsible for halting Bloomington’s annexation proposal.
In February, Bloomington Mayor John Hamilton proposed 10,000 acres and 15,000 people in and around the city to become official parts of Bloomington. The proposal, which has been continuously deliberated by the city council and was set to be voted on as early as June 30, was killed early Saturday morning by the Indiana General Assembly in a last-minute provision to the state’s budget bill.
The provision terminates any annexations introduced after Dec. 31, 2016. No annexations can be introduced or approved until June 30, 2022.
Bloomington is the only city verified to be affected by this provision. The only other city in Indiana considering annexation was Dayton, Indiana, which wanted to annex a proposed subdivision. Dayton city attorneys said they did not know how the provision would affect their proposal.
Because the provision is included in the budget bill, the only bill that must pass the legislature every year, it’s nearly guaranteed to become law. While Republicans who support the provision see it as necessary to regulate local government actions, some Democratic opposition has voiced that the move is a state government overreach of local authority.
“I think the bottom line is that we’re both sincerely disappointed that it ended in this way and concerned about what this means in the future,” City of Bloomington spokesperson Mary Catherine Carmichael said. “If this happens to the city of Bloomington, it can happen to the county of Monroe or any other municipality in the state.”
Author of the budget bill Rep. Tim Brown, R-Crawfordsville, confirmed Cook was one of the groups to influence the bill’s new language.
The motivation for Cook to be involved could have included a previous contract with the city to comply with any city annexation and high tax increases.
In May 1998, a contractor named Jack Thompson signed a waiver of remonstrance in a deal to have the Cook buildings hooked up to Bloomington’s sewer system. A remonstrance waiver is an indefinite promise not to appeal an annexation that has already taken place. Marsha Lovejoy, spokesperson for the Cook Group, said Thompson did not have the authority to sign the waiver.
Indiana has since made provisions that allow such waivers signed in 2015 and later to expire after 15 years, but they do not apply to Cook’s waiver.
If Cook Medical, the campus of the Cook Group that is located in one of the proposed annexation areas, were annexed into the city, its property tax rates would increase by 44 percent, according to an assessment done by Reedy Financial Group for the mayor’s office.
“Different people have varying ideas on how employment centers should be taxed, and I think there were concerns taxing west side industry,” Carmichael said.
However, Brown wouldn’t say whether Cook had more influence than other groups or how many groups there were in total that had voiced opposition to Bloomington’s annexation.
Chairman of the Board of Cook Group Stephen Ferguson, a former representative in the Indiana General Assembly, had been vocal about his opposition to annexation since it was proposed. Ferguson did not return calls from the Indiana Daily Student.
Rep. Jeff Ellington, R-Bloomington, said annexation language has been in the works throughout the session and the provision to the budget bill is not last-minute.
Every session there has been legislation brought forth related to annexation issues, and this session was no different.
Initially, the issue was in Senate Bill 381, authored by Sen. James Buck, R-Kokomo. The bill, which would have required county councils to approve any annexations that were voted on by June 30 or later, didn’t pass its initial committee. Bloomington’s original plan was to have the city council do a final vote on annexation by June 28, and this date was later pushed back to June 30 after the bill died.
In the second half of session, language concerning annexation waivers was included in House Bill 1450, which made it out of committee. When it reached the full floor, however, the waiver language was removed, Ellington said.
Throughout the session, Ellington said he heard concerns about the proposed annexation from citizens, community leaders, county commissioners, county councilmen, township trustees, fire chiefs, the Monroe County sheriff, Monroe County Community School Corporation, Richland-Bean Blossom Community School Corporation and Cook. The lawmaker said Cook Group had no more influence than any other concerned group that approached him — though it should have more influence because of its philanthropy and employment in southwest Indiana, he said.
The annexation would have taken away about $270,000 from MCCSC annually, and about 30 percent of Monroe County’s deputies. This wasn’t a Cook bill, he said.
He didn’t give up when the language was removed from HB 1450, out of a responsibility to concerned constituents and groups, he said.
“Local governments are given rules and legislation from the statehouse to operate through,” Ellington said. “When they overreach, we reign ‘em back in.”
Rita Barrow, a trustee of Van Buren township located in Indiana, has been among the most vocal opposing annexation. She said she had been contacting the state legislature since annexation was proposed in hopes that it could be stopped.
Barrow said she knows there are people who are unhappy with the outcome, but they aren’t who would have been the most affected by annexation.
“Are those the people who are in the city or are those rural members in Monroe County?” Barrow said. “I don’t see anyone coming to my office upset they won’t be annexed.”
Hamilton’s office is upset with the outcome but does not yet know what it will do in response to the state killing its proposal.
“We haven’t taken anything off the table this week,” Carmichael said. “We’re taking counsel.”
Rep. Matt Pierce, D-Bloomington, questioned how practical it would be for the city to sue the state.
It would be costly, and the court would likely give deference to the legislature because they’re a separate and equal branch of government, he said.
Pierce said he first became aware of the annexation provision in the budget bill Friday morning, the last day of the 2017 session.
It’s very unusual for things to be put in the budget bill at the last minute that address a very specific issue like this provision did, he said.
He questioned the addition to the budget bill twice with the second time being very early on Saturday morning, when the legislature finally directed its attention to the budget bill. It was the last thing it had to discuss, and it was after midnight.
The budget bill is the only bill that must pass the legislature, Pierce said.
“What that told me is that someone with a great deal of power and influence was able to get the leaders of the House and Senate to agree with that,” Pierce said.
Sen. Mark Stoops, D-Bloomington, said he talked to a number of legislators, and he inquired how and why this language was included in the budget bill. The general consensus among the legislators — and Stoops’ own opinion — is Cook was the main group pushing for it.
“This seems to be the Republican supermajority exercising their power in an irresponsible way on the behalf of special interests,” Stoops said. “You’d like to think that it was public opposition ... that drove this language, but it actually was one very-well funded member of the business community that was going to be affected by the annexation.”
Pierce said when he initially asked Brown, who had brought forward the concern that made its way into a form of legislation, Brown said there was a company in Bloomington that owned a lot of houses and was unaware its properties would be annexed. Later, during discussion of the budget bill around midnight Friday, Brown said it was concerned community members, businesses and local representatives, such as Ellington, with reservations.
In the past, the Indiana General Assembly has sided with landowners’ property rights, Brown said.
“This was just reinforcing property rights and land rights,” he said.
The budget bill is the only bill that can have language added to it last-minute that hasn’t passed either house, Brown said. It’s not against the rules to do so.
Even if a lawmaker did feel the rules of the institution had been violated, it’d be a somewhat tedious process to derive any consequence from that, Pierce said. In the House, the legislator would have to raise a point of order and claim some rule had been violated. Then the House speaker would have to make a ruling on whether or not the rule was broken. If the objecting legislator isn’t happy with the ruling, they can appeal it, but then the whole House would have to vote on the appeal, and they’d likely side with the supermajority the Republican party had in the state legislature.
The legislature has a legitimate place in looking at the annexation issue and ensuring fairness in the process, Pierce said. What concerns him is the amount of influence someone may have had to come in at the last minute and freeze the whole process for five years.
To him, this is an example of state governmental overreach, a problem he’s seen developing in the Indiana legislature.
One example was last session, when Bloomington considered restricting the use of plastic bags in the city, and the legislature retaliated by passing a law that banned taxation on or limitation of plastic bag usage.
There’s a history of the legislature meddling in local affairs, Pierce said. He’s just never seen it rise to this level.
“The legislature’s been overreaching a long time when it comes to respecting local government’s authority,” Pierce said. “Usually when the leadership wants to make something happen, they can.”
Dozens of bills this session would fall into the category of special interest groups influencing lawmakers’ proposed legislation, Stoops said. One other was a bill pushed by AT&T that would take away local officials’ ability to regulate utility poles that boost cell phone signals.
A list compiled by Stoops’ staff lists at least 15 bills that passed either the House or Senate this session that preempt local government authority.
Due to the Republican supermajority in both the House and the Senate and the presence of a Republican governor, there aren’t checks and balances in the state legislature, Stoops said.
There’s a tendency to pass bills that benefit campaign contributors, he said.
“Frankly, I think the political system in the United States is as corrupt as any third-world country,” Stoops said. “The only difference is we call it campaign finance and politicians use it by-and-large to stay in power.”