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Of course there should be limits on home rule

By Scott Tibbs. Printed in the Herald-Times, May 23, 2017

Nobody believes in absolute home rule for local government, so we need to stop pretending that home rule is a standard that must be adhered to. Home rule is not the same as state sovereignty, and there are good reasons to limit home rule in certain areas. We need to have the discernment to recognize the reasons for these restrictions.

First, state sovereignty is not the same as home rule. The federal government was created by and is an agent of the states, and the states were very reluctant to give significant power to the federal government – and with good reason. The federal government should be the servant of the states, not vice versa. In Indiana, local government's authority flows from the state. In both cases, the state is sovereign, so it is not "hypocritical" to demand more state sovereignty while restricting home rule.

Since state sovereignty and local home rule are different issues, the same arguments do not apply to both. It demonstrates an unfortunate ignorance of history and our system of government to be applying the same arguments on state sovereignty and federal power to issues of local government's authority.

The law is a blunt instrument, often unable to deal with nuance and unable to predict destructive consequences of policy. But to politicians, the law is the primary instrument they have, and when you have a hammer everything looks like a nail. This is why politicians at all levels of government tend to embrace restricting our liberty and regulating our behavior at home and at work. They may be trying to solve problems in good faith, but harmful policy is still harmful.

This is where a greater magistrate must sometimes step in to protect the rights of the people, especially when the tyranny of the majority threatens the livelihood, property, or basic rights of the minority. No city in Indiana is allowed to ban racial minorities from their city limits, yet no one complains about this violation of home rule. We all support restrictions on home rule, so the question is not whether there should be limits on home rule. The question is what those limits should be.

If our local civil magistrate will not listen to our voices, or if the majority of the local population supports increased restrictions on our liberty, then we must sometimes appeal to the state legislature to restrict the authority of local government to protect the basic rights of our state's citizens. In either case, democracy is working. These restrictions on home rule, then, are examples of libertarian governance.

In fact, every county and city must submit their financial records to the state for audit. This protects the taxpayers by ensuring that money is being spent legally.

There are a number of good policy reasons for the state legislature to limit the authority of local government. If certain communities pass burdensome regulations on businesses that operate statewide, it makes it more difficult for that business to know the rules community to community. Either they will avoid the regulation-happy community or, worse yet, they may not expand in the state at all. This harms all of us through lost economic opportunity and lost consumer choice.

It is true that the government that is most responsive to the needs of the people is the government that is closest to the people. Local officials live in our communities, they are our neighbors, they are the most accessible, and they see our community's problems up close. Therefore, they should have authority to govern locally. That power is not and must not be unlimited, however.