Home Rule Charters
A home rule charter allows local governments to exercise all powers not explicitly denied by state law or constitution.
Local governments are indispensable. They provide the framework within which people live safe and productive lives. They address the needs of citizens in areas including health, safety, education, environment, and economic development, to mention just a few. They are also viewed as the “most representative and responsive level of government,” according to political scientist Richard L. Engstrom. Yet, historically, local governments have often lacked the power necessary to fulfill their mission. This is because local governments possess no powers of their own. Local government powers are given to them by state governments. The Tenth Amendment to the US Constitution states that “The powers not delegated to the United States by the Constitution, nor prohibited by it to the States, are reserved to the States respectively, or to the people.” There is no other provision for local government power in the US Constitution.
Louisiana, like many other states, has been wary of giving local governments too much power. Most local government in Louisiana and elsewhere operates under what is called Dillon’s Rule. Dillon’s Rule has three tenets: local governments may only exercise those powers explicitly granted to them by constitution or statute, and whatever additional powers may be implied by those already granted, and finally, those powers essential and indispensable to the government in question.
The powers that a local government may exercise are listed in their charter. A local government charter functions much like a constitution does for a state government. The Louisiana Constitution provides for several types of charter that differ widely in the powers they give to local governments. The most restrictive is the “special-act charter,” which abides by Dillon’s Rule. Gaining additional power under a special charter usually requires that a community ask a legislator to introduce a bill during the legislative session granting them this power. The process is time-consuming and leaves local government with what Wayne Parent called a “distinctively statewide tenor.” Another type of charter giving a community a bit more power is the “general-act charter,” which apportions power by population size. As the population grows, the government gains more power. The type of charter that provides communities with the widest range of powers is known as a “home rule charter.” The home rule charter in effect is the reverse of Dillon’s Rule, in that governments can exercise all powers not explicitly denied by law or constitution.
The first home rule charter in Louisiana was granted to East Baton Rouge Parish in 1946 through an amendment to the 1921 Louisiana Constitution. After New Orleans and Jefferson Parishes sought their own home rule charters in 1950 and 1956 respectively, the legislature passed a general amendment in 1960 that allowed any parish to adopt a home rule charter. This provision became part of Louisiana’s 1974 Constitution as well. The 1974 Louisiana Constitution, under which the state remains governed, states that “any local governmental subdivision may draft, adopt, or amend a home rule charter in accordance with this section.” Today, twenty-six of Louisiana’s sixty-four parishes operate under a home rule charter while thirty-eight operate under a police jury form. Twenty-one of the home rule governments have the council-president form, four are consolidated governments, and one is a commission style government. To obtain a home rule charter today, a majority of the citizens in the political jurisdiction must vote to change their form of government. Once the public has voted, the process is self-actualizing as the enabling legislation is already in the Louisiana Constitution.
Cities and parishes typically seek a home rule charter after finding their special charter or the provisions of the Lawrason Act (which spells out the governing structure, powers, and responsibilities of local governments) too restrictive. It provides greater autonomy for governments to tax, spend, and legislate. The home rule charter also provides for separate legislative and executive branches unlike parish governments, which combine the executive and legislative functions in a police jury. Home rule is not universally popular, however. Some citizens oppose it, believing that increased government powers will lead to higher taxes, more restrictive zoning, and excessive government intrusion. As a result, home rule initiatives are often voted down when placed on the ballot, leaving power in the hands of state government rather than local government.