Viewpoint: Home rule plan a Trojan horse of taxes

Just in time for Halloween. Just when you thought it was dead and buried, it’s back again. The rotting corpse of home rule has been exhumed and paraded before the citizenry as the answer to all their needs.

A majority of Rockford residents back in the ’80s thought they had killed off this misbegotten concept once and for all, but these things are like zombies—when the moon is full, they rise and walk again.

Home rule is a politician’s wet dream, a blank check that would allow unlimited taxation and no redress for the taxpayers. Lurking on the sidelines are the developers, greedily licking their chops and hoping for a windfall.

In the present form of government, the state sets limits on taxation by cities. They may not exceed these limits without a referendum and public permission to do so. But the politicians, including the home-grown variety, don’t like that method because they are forced to practice somewhat more accountable stewardship.

This business of home rule appeared on the scene in 1970 when Illinois adopted a new state constitution. Before that time, the dominant legal opinion was summed up by a doctrine known as Dillon’s Rule, after the judge who wrote the treatise on local government. The rule held that the powers of local government should be narrowly formed. It stated that city and county governments can only exercise those powers granted them by the state or fairly implied from grants of power or are essential to fundamental purposes of a specific unit of government.

Colorado started the home rule ball rolling in 1904 when it gave the city of Denver power to solve local problems at the local level. Denver became a home rule city, and the idea of such government spread. About half the states today have some form of home rule for city and county government.

Cities like Rockford still operate primarily under Dillon’s Rule, but the state constitution granted them additional powers such as the authority to make local improvements (road building, for example) financed by special assessments, to incur debt except where limited by law, and to levy additional taxes on areas in their boundaries to provide special services such as garbage collection.

Beyond that, non-home rule governments do not have power over purely local affairs such as the financing of election campaigns. The authority of these governments to regulate in different areas comes from state statutes that grant specific powers for such governments.

Home rule governments aren’t bound by such restrictions. The state constitution gives them inherent power over any function “pertaining to its government and affairs, including, but not limited to, the power to regulate for the protection of public health, safety, morals and welfare; to license; to tax; and to incur debt.” Nothing in this sphere is off limits to local politicians unless the General Assembly limits or denies it.

The politicians will tell you this is a great idea, it gives us more control over our local affairs and permits us to work out the solutions to our own problems. But as the great H.L. Mencken put it: “Unquestionably there is progress. The average American now pays out twice as much in taxes as he formerly got in wages.”

Many of us were disappointed when Mayor Larry Morrissey appeared to come out in favor of home rule. His 15 percent margin of victory in the mayoral election, we thought, meant the taxpayers were tired of the same old hash of subsidizing developers and promoting urban sprawl. They want something different and sustainable.

Many of us thought Mayor Morrissey would move in that direction and try to serve the wishes of the people who put him in office. Some of us also thought he would be more aggressive in presenting and fighting for his positions on the issues.

Instead, he has been mild, low-key and not very aggressive at all. He seems not to have any great support in the City Council and also appears disinclined to conduct any dialogue on the direction in which he thinks the city should go. It is an approach that may cost him a good deal of support among voters. If he doesn’t want to be a one-term mayor and then watch the city go backward again, he needs to put some fire behind his convictions.

State law says the issue of home rule requires a referendum. To get that issue on the ballot, the city must adopt a resolution or a group of city residents must file a petition with signatures of at least 10 percent of the registered voters in the city.

If you want more taxes, vote for home rule. They will follow like night follows day. People on fixed incomes could find themselves in a very stringent situation financially; they might even have to sell their homes.

Take a good look at the folks who are trying to sell you this idea of home rule and then ask that famous question: qui bono? Who benefits? Remember, if this plan is put in place, John Q. Public will have little or no say about what is done here. The approach will be “Shut up and pay!”

My suggestion is to do your homework. Research this issue, and if you don’t like the facts, band together with other taxpayers and form an active opposition group. You can be certain the developers and their politician allies will more than minimally promote this governmental rip-off program.

From the Oct. 18-25, 2005, issue

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