What is Home Rule?

Background

The concept of home rule was first adopted in Article VII, Section 6 of the Illinois Constitution of 1970 to give units of local government greater power to pursue, implement, and administer its own policy initiatives, rather than the intervention of the state’s interests and power. Specifically, it allows municipalities of populations greater than 25,000 to “exercise its power and perform any function pertinent to the interest of its own government affairs, including, but not limited to, the power to regulate for the protection of public health, safety, morals and welfare; to license; to tax; and to incur debt.” Municipalities can also achieve home rule status via referendum if population is below 25,000.

Prior to 1970, the state’s local government units operated under what was referred to as Dillon’s Rule, which meant that municipalities possessed powers only granted to them by the state. In effect, if there were any dispute about the power or authority of local government, the benefit of the doubt is granted to the state. Home rule reverses this concept and grants greater power and authority to the municipality, rather than the state, over its government affairs as laid out in the Constitution.

Rules and Regulations of Home Rule Status

Having a population of 25,000 does not automatically trigger home rule status. Rather, a referendum must incur and pass once the municipality has achieved the 25,000 threshold.

Once a municipality has achieved home rule status, this does not mean it can operate freely from the state. While it may have greater flexibility to pursue, implement, and administer governmental initiatives, it still must abide by certain rules and regulations as expressed in Article VII, Section 6 in the Constitution.

The Illinois General Assembly may limit or deny (via a vote by three-fifths margin) the extent of which a home rule municipality can tax. This includes imposing taxes measured by income, earnings, or upon occupations, unless otherwise authorized by law. Additional limitations include the following:

  • License for revenue;
  • Define and provide for the punishment of a felony;
  • Providing for officers, their manner of selection and terms of office, except as approved
    by referendum or otherwise authorized by law;
  • Anything that may violate the provisions of the federal or state constitutions;
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Other states with home rule status

There are currently 44 states that grants local units of government to achieve some variation  home rule status in their constitution. Some states, such as Ohio, already give municipalities the right to exercise certain home rule powers regardless of population. Municipalities in other states, such as Iowa, just need legislative approval. Other states, such as Missouri, first need to have a population requirement as a prerequisite to achieving home rule status.

Illinois is unique in the case that its population threshold is so high, with the requirement of at least 25,000 people. Most states cite a population requirement of at least 5,000 people prior to applying for home rule states if population is a prerequisite.

Municipalities pushing for home rule status

There are currently 211 out of 1,297 municipalities that operate under home rule and there has been a recent push to expand that status. The Illinois Municipal League a few years ago lobbied to expand home rule eligibility by pushing for an amendment which would lower municipal population requirement to 5,000. Moreover, there have been a few municipalities to pursue home rule status of recent. The Village of Glencoe and the Village of Barrington considered further pursuing it, yet the initiative never made it to the ballot. The village of Clarendon Hills’ referendum in 2012 failed and the city of Rockford’s recently failed.

Recent cases of home rule power and authority

Soda Tax

Cook County’s controversial penny-per-ounce tax on sweetened beverages in 2017 raised questions on whether or not the unit of government was within its legal means to pass, implement, and administer such a tax. This prompted the Illinois Retail Merchants Association to file suit, asserting that the county was not within its legal power and authority because the ordinance created classifications of taxes with no differences in violation of the uniformity clause of the Illinois Constitution (Article IX, Section 2) and that the tax was too vague. In the end, the Court ruled in favor of Cook County, asserting that the county’s home rule power and authority thwarts that of the states’ in this issue of taxation.

Campaign Contribution Limits

Another recent case involved whether or not the county had the legal authority to set campaign contribution limits. Then Cook County Assessor Joe Berrios faced faced $41,000 in fines for failing to return campaign contributions from property tax appeals lawyers whose donations exceeded legal limits. Berrios’ legal team challenged a 2016 county ordinance which asserted that donors who seek “official action” with the county may contribute no more than $750 in non election years. The Ethics Board ultimately rejected, stating that the county’s home rule powers give them the authority to set their own limits.

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