Seeking a better understanding of Pennsylvania's issues and proposed solutions? Sometimes, complicated jargon and concepts can get in the way. That's why we started Explainers, a series that tries to lay out key facts, clarify concepts and demystify jargon. Today's topic: home rule.

What is home rule?

How much of a say does your local government have in the decisions that govern your daily life? That depends. Pennsylvania allows municipalities and counties to determine the structure and authority of the local government. Municipalities that opt for home rule have the most control.

"Home rule" transfers authority over municipal matters from state laws to a local charter that's drafted, adopted, and amended by voters in the municipality. A home rule charter is essentially a local constitution: it sets up the government structure and outlines its authority and its limitations.

Under home rule, a county or municipality can do anything that's not specifically denied by the state constitution, the General Assembly, or the charter itself. By contrast, municipalities run by municipal codes (state laws) can only act where specifically authorized by state law.

The bottom line? Home rule provides local control. It gives the municipal government the ability to craft ordinances and make decisions based on local needs, rather than having to follow a one-size-fits-all state code that's decided by state legislators.

For example, home rule municipalities have flexibility in setting the rate of property taxes and personal taxes for residents. Municipalities have also used home rule charters to ban natural gas drilling.  State College's charter goes so far as to guarantee residents the right to a sustainable energy future.

All counties and municipalities in Pennsylvania have the right to create and adopt a home rule charter, according to Act 62 of 1972 (Pennsylvania's Home Rule Charter and Optional Plans Laws).

There are 78 home rule municipalities (defined as a municipality that has drafted its own charter) in the state, plus others that have opted for optional plans or the Optional Third Class City Charter. In contrast to home rule, municipalities that choose an optional plan can choose from six forms of government outlined in the Home Rule Charter and Optional Plans Law while still being subject to its municipal code. The Optional 3rd Class City Charter Law (1957) offers third class cities a selection of government forms.

44 states have provisions for home rule charters. The states that don't are Alabama, Idaho, Indiana, Mississippi, Virginia, and Vermont.

History (and Dillon's Rule)

To understand home rule, it's helpful to know that it wasn't always an option. Historically, framework for the relationship between local and state government came from Dillon's Rule, which says municipalities are connected to the state "as a child is connected to a parent" and limits local government power to authority explicitly granted by the state. Dillon's Rule was adopted in Pa. in 1970 and across the country in 1907 in a US Supreme Court decision to uphold a state's interests over that of a city.

Home rule wasn't established in Pennsylvania until 1922—and even then, the Constitutional amendment just gave the General Assembly power to grant cities the option to adopt home rule. The General Assembly gave Philadelphia a home rule designation in 1949. It wasn't until 1968 that all counties and municipalities were granted the right to adopt a home rule charter.

Why adopt home rule? What are the advantages?

Simply put, home rule allows a municipality much more freedom to self-govern, which in turn can be empowering for citizens. It also limits interference from state legislation, beneficial on the state-level because it frees up the General Assembly to focus on statewide issues.

It can be a way to address financial difficulties, as home rule allows a municipality to raise taxes. Altoona is currently in the process of pursuing a home rule designation as a way to get out of Act 47.

What are some disadvantages?

Home rule can give a lot of power to local leaders or the loudest voices without much oversight from the state.

The charter can be cumbersome—any change to a home rule charter requires a referendum on a ballot (and many changes could mean a really long ballot). On the other hand, the very fact that a charter can be changed by a simple vote can lead to instability if, say, a municipality changed its charter frequently.

Perhaps the most common objection is that Pa. home rule municipalities aren't bound by state-set tax limits. While this is an advantage to governments that want to increase revenue, this may not be appealing to citizens who don't want to see their taxes go up.

Home rule could also make it harder to address issues that affect a wider region. Neighboring municipalities are bound by their own home rule charters and aren't required to cooperate with other local governments.

How does a municipality adopt home rule?

If a municipality wants to adopt home rule, citizens must first vote to create a government study commission and, on the same ballot, elect the members of the commission. (There are two ways to get the commission on the ballot—the municipality can pass an ordinance or citizens can petition to have it added.)

The commission's job is to assess the current government and make a recommendation. If home rule is recommended, the commission writes a home rule charter. The charter is adopted—and home rule is established—by a majority vote in a referendum. Any changes to the charter must be put up for a vote.

Limitations

There are limitations to home rule. A home rule municipality is still subject to the United States Constitution, the Pennsylvania Constitution, state laws, and laws "uniform and applicable in every part of the Commonwealth." Municipalities must follow laws directed at home rule governments. For example, even with home rule, municipalities still have to follow state laws like the Municipal Planning Code, the Sunshine Law, and Stormwater Management Act.


Did this article answer all your questions about home rule in Pennsylvania?  If not, you can reach Kate Lao Shaffner via email at This e-mail address is being protected from spambots. You need JavaScript enabled to view it or through social media @klaoshaffner. Have a topic on which you'd like us to do an Explainer?  Let us know in the comment section below, or on Twitter @PaCrossroads.