By RORYE O’CONNOR
MT. VERNON —
Roger Huebner, Illinois Municipal League deputy executive director, detailed a short history of Home Rule in Illinois at an informational meeting Thursday.
The “Keep Home Rule - Vote No” initiative held the gathering to offer a disinterested party an opportunity to explain the type of local government, according to Bill Beck, co-chairman of the Keep Home Rule - Vote No committee.
Huebner said Home Rule came into being in Illinois July 1, 1971, after the 1970 Illinois State Constitution was ratified. It is defined under Article 7 of the constitution’s Articles of Confederation, he said, and was debated intensely before being approved.
“Article 7 basically says any city over 25,000 gets Home Rule automatically,” he said. “If it is smaller than that, it has to be voted in.”
He said 290 communities in Illinois and one county — Cook County — are Home Rule communities.
“The essence of Home Rule is self-determination, but it’s limited,” he said. “It does not give a community the power to make themselves independent of the state. It allows them to perform any power and function pertaining to its government and its affairs.”
He said this includes matters of public health, safety and incurred debt, but also has restrictions; for example, a Home Rule community cannot incur debt for more than 40 years by the statute.
Huebner said in 1970, 59 cities with more than 25,000 in population were automatically granted Home Rule, and today, there are 290 with the biggest in Chicago and the smallest in Muddy, a Saline County city with about 70 residents, according to the 2010 census.
He said between 1976 and 2001, 31 Home Rule communities attempted to reverse Home Rule, with 87 percent of those communities retaining it. He said of the four cities that voted it out, three were in the Chicago metropolitan area.
“The essence of Home Rule is like getting something custom made,” he said. “It generates local solutions for local problems. It allows communities to promote and protect community interests.”
He said in suburban areas, to his understanding, Home Rule allows communities to be competitive and aggressive in attracting businesses that other suburban communities are competing for.
Communities without Home Rule must have issues such as tax increases passed by the state, and Huebner said in his 30 years of experience as a lobbyist he has seen that it is harder for the state to deal with local government issues.
“They have their own problems,” he said.
He also brought up some negative aspects of Home Rule.
“It doesn’t allow one size fits all statutory construction — it doesn’t allow you to say, all the rules are the same,” he said.
Huebner added that the legislature, by the nature of Home Rule, doesn’t have as much control over communities that deploy it, meaning they do have a “broader statutory authority for taxation.”
He said that doesn’t mean the governing style is without limitations as the Illinois General Assembly can still preempt Home Rule.
“The court system has lost none of its power,” he said.
Huebner offered a few examples of communities with Home Rule, such as Bloomington in McLean County, which used its Home Rule powers to attract a Mitsubishi manufacturing plant.
He said the community of Rosemont, where Chicago O’Hare International Airport is located, has only 500 citizens, but uses a hotel/motel tax in order to create enough revenue to attract and retain the “best restaurants and hotels.”
Concerning taxes, Huebner cited two studies that said the overall tax imposition in Home Rule communities is less than in non-Home Rule communities. He said this is due to the power of customization of taxes. For example, a diesel tax could be levied in a community with heavy interstate traffic, placing the burden of that revenue on non-residents.
“Home Rule allows these communities to keep property taxes lower, is what the research has produced,” he said.
He said according to the studies, Home Rule communities generally have higher bond ratings and lower structural deficits.
Huebner said Mt. Vernon is a unique community in Southern Illinois, in part to its location near I-64 and I-57.
He said the difference for non-Home Rule communities is that major initiatives must pass through the Illinois Senate, requiring 60 votes at minimum, and the House, requiring 30 votes, which he said can be exceedingly difficult due to partisan politics.
“If you have a problem, it can take an extraordinary effort of someone to go completely to the wall for you to get the simplest things,” he said. “It’s hard to pass a law these days.”
Home Rule is up for repeal in Mt. Vernon in the Nov. 6 election, with a referendum that states: “Should the people of Mt. Vernon, IL return the power to raise local taxes only by a vote from the people approving said tax, stopping the City Council from raising taxes through their sole power of Home Rule without your vote? If so vote Yes to Revoke Home Rule powers from the City of Mt. Vernon, in the County of Jefferson, State of Illinois, 62864.”