Home Rule Debate: Guest Column: Would home rule make city leaner and more efficient?

Editor’s Note: Mr. Sweeney wrote this column before the question to place home rule on the ballot was put before City Council, which may vote on that question very soon.

There is a group of Rockford residents circulating petitions, with support from the mayor and members of the City Council, for another up or down vote on home rule authority in Rockford. Home rule gives Illinois’ cities greater freedom to act outside the limitations imposed by the Illinois constitution and state legislature. The proponents of home rule have attempted to stake out the high ground, contending that this is a referendum on good government and that the voters should have faith and confidence in their elected officials to do the right thing without limits imposed by the state legislature because our local officials know how to solve local problems, and they need fewer legislative restrictions to do the job. The implication is that if you are against home rule, then you are against good government and self-government. I think that is a little biased. I don’t trust any elected official enough to give them a blank check with my signature on it. City councils change over time, that’s the nature of government, and why it needs to be limited.

A lot has happened since 1776, but in the spirit of 1776, I think that it would be wise to remember that one of the major issues in the formation of our republic and the federal government was finding the balance between government that could be effective in performing the duties it was assigned, yet limited in its ability to regulate people’s lives and property. There was concern that without limits on government,the revolution would trade one form of tyranny for another. This philosophy of limited government was passed on through the state constitutions. Hence, cities, villages and towns incorporated under the state constitutions, and, the laws of the states, were also limited by the people in the ability to tax and regulate at the state and local levels. In my opinion, these concerns and limitations are still valid today, and they don’t make people who hold them anti-government as the home rule proponents imply.

Today, people seem to have lost that healthy distrust of government. While they oppose increases in sales, property and income taxes when given the opportunity, they are more willing to give government at all levels more control over their neighbors’ lives, money and property, and hence their lives, money and property. If you have a neighbor, then you are a neighbor.

Government at all levels has responded to this ambivalence and apathy with a plethora of sin taxes and special interest taxes and regulatory fees that tax a small “special interest” group, and the majority view it as a tax on “the other guys.” Non-smokers are silent when smokers are taxed; non-drinkers are silent when drinkers are taxed; existing home owners are silent when new home buyers are required to pay extra for the schools; property owners are silent when renters are taxed; local residents are silent when commuters are taxed; car drivers are silent when truck drivers are taxed; and the list grows. The elected representatives of the people have learned how to divide the dwindling number of voters in order to keep government growing without widespread voter opposition.

Whenever the public policy debate is about “who should pay for more government services” rather than “what government services do we agree that we should all pay for,” I quote the following warning by James Madison in The Federalist Papers about government, elected officials, and the power to tax and regulate, “make no law which will not have its full operation on themselves and their friends as well as on the great mass of society. This has always been deemed one of the strongest bonds by which human policy can connect the rulers and the people together. It creates between them that communion of interests and sympathy of sentiments of which few governments have furnished examples; but without which every government degenerates into tyranny.”

If home rule was more about returning to the philosophy of government espoused by Madison, then it would be an easy decision.

Reprinted with permission from Home Building News, Vol. XXVI, No. 6, Nov/Dec 05, the official publication of the Home Builders Association of the Greater Rockford Area.

From the Jan. 4-10, 2006, issue

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