The Fatal Flaw in Home Rule Law

[This is the 2nd part of a series examining home rule in Illinois. The first one is here.]

Municipal home rule powers are granted by the Illinois Constitution.

Except as limited by this Section, a home rule unit may exercise any power and perform any function pertaining to its government and affairs including, but not limited to, the power to regulate for the protection of the public health, safety, morals and welfare; to license; to tax; and to incur debt.

About 37 states (different sources cite different numbers, seemingly depending on how it’s defined) allow for municipal home rule in some form. Illinois, however, is unique in that its constitution lacks a mechanism for local control, namely a municipal charter or constitution that could limit home rule powers at the local level.

John Gile, citizen journalist, author and NIU alum, runs a website called A Rockford resident who served as a spokesperson for the successful 1983 repeal of home rule in that city, Gile describes the problem thusly:

Without the controls of a local charter or constitution and with citizens stripped of their right to vote on city issues, so-called home rule empowers politicians to:
1. Raise taxes without citizen permission.
2. Impose new taxes in the form of fees, licenses, and regulations.
3. Expedite seizures of private property.
4. Give city property to private interests without competitive bidding.
5. Take greater control over citizens’ lives, livelihoods, property, and liberty.
6. And on and on . . . “…Powers and functions of home rule units shall be construed liberally.” (Illinois Constitution)

In states other than Illinois, the same constitutional process is followed to pass power from the state to local government. Because Illinois left that crucial provision out, home rule government in Illinois is like a car with no brakes and a steering wheel that works only once every four years.

The missing piece can be affixed only by changing the Illinois Constitution, and as it happens this November it is again time for a referendum question about holding a state constitutional convention, or “con-con.”

Unless and until this happens, however, we are pretty much stuck with all-or-nothing choices: Either continue the ingrained and futile pattern of working ourselves into a throw-the-bums-out frenzy every election cycle, or revoke home rule and force our elected representatives to come hat-in-hand when they want something from us.