Cities, counties, and towns are on the front lines of America’s most pressing problems. Local governments today are responsible for protecting our health and safety and are increasingly called to respond to inequality, fight climate change, manage technological change, and so many other vital demands. Local governments have always been the places where innovative and timely policy solutions are devised and tested—but today so much more is being asked of them.

Home rule—the legal structure that determines local power and how states can interfere with local decision-making—has historically provided a framework for local governance. But it is no longer up to the task of meeting the challenges we face in the 21st century.

It is time for an urgent and fundamental reform of the relationship between cities and states.

The last comprehensive effort to reform home rule was launched in 1953. A lot has changed in the nearly seven decades since. Cities and counties are the drivers of our nation’s and the global economy. Four out of five Americans call cities home, including America’s most diverse populations. State and local governments used to work together collaboratively – but now, states are systematically removing or reducing the power of local governments to act on the needs and values of their residents. The old rules governing state and city relations have fundamentally broken down.

Now is not the time for tinkering around the edges. For trying to resolve the friction between cities and states issue after issue, legislative session after legislative session.

That is why the National League of Cities, in partnership with the Local Solutions Support Center, has published a groundbreaking Principles of Home Rule for the Twenty-First Century, articulating a set of four principles that should be followed in re-balancing state and local relations:

  • The Local Authority Principle: A state’s law of home rule should provide local governments full capacity to govern within their territorial jurisdiction, including the power to adopt laws, regulations, and policies across the full range of subjects—and with the powers—available to the state.
  • The Local Fiscal Authority Principle: Home rule should guarantee local fiscal authority and recognize the value of fiscal stability at the local level. This principle accordingly includes local power to raise revenue and manage spending consistent with local budgets and priorities. To support local fiscal authority, a state should ensure adequate intergovernmental aid for general welfare at the local level and be prohibited from imposing unreasonable unfunded mandates.
  • The Presumption Against State Preemption Principle: To appropriately balance state and local authority, a system of home rule should provide that states may only act with respect to home rule governments expressly. And to exercise the power to preempt, the state must articulate—and, in the case of state-local conflict, must demonstrate—a substantial state interest, narrowly tailored. Moreover, state laws displacing local authority should be general, not unreasonably singling out individual local governments or groups of local governments.
  • The Local Democratic Self-Governance Principle: A state’s law of home rule should ensure that local governments have full authority to manage their own democratic process and structure of governance. Local democratic self-governance includes a local government’s authority over its personnel and property. Home rule should also protect local officials from individual punishment by the state for the exercise of local democracy. This protection includes barring states from holding local officials personally liable or removing local officials from office in the case of state-local policy conflicts. In addition, state “speech or debate” immunity should extend to local lawmakers. And states should only act with respect to local democratic self-governance through express and general state laws that articulate an overriding state interest that is narrowly tailored to that interest.

The Principles and their accompanying model constitutional language center on several fundamental propositions. First, home rule must affirm the full range of local government authority to solve the challenges they face. Home rule must particularly protect local fiscal authority, because the ability to solve local problems locally means nothing without the resources to act.

Indeed, states should ensure that every local government is equipped to succeed. Home rule also requires rethinking when and how states displace local democracy. In some circumstances, states may have compelling reasons to interfere with local governance, but they should be prepared to articulate—and defend—those reasons, setting a high bar for preemption. And to make local democracy meaningful, home rule must protect above all the choices communities make in their own governance.

Moving toward a vision of home rule built around these Principles would be an important step in aligning the role that cities and other local governments now play with the state legal structure that governs them. It would not be the first time that cities and states have fundamentally redefined their relationship. America is now at another one of those periodic junctures where the need for change is urgent and the time right for reforming home rule.

Read the full report:

National League of Cities/ Local Solutions Support Center. 2020. Principles of Home Rule for the Twenty-First Century.