State of STEM (SoSTEM) Address (201401290030HQ)

How Much Discretion Do Local Governments Have?

NASA Town Hall (NHQ201904010004)
NASA Town Hall (NHQ201904010004) by NASA HQ PHOTO is licensed under CC-BY-NC-ND 2.0

The founders of this country created it to be local first, state second and federal third in ranking of importance, power and connection to the people. They had many reasons for this.

  • One: Such a large country could never function effectively, or appropriately for the people if the federal government was trying to do what was best for every small and large community throughout the country. There’s no one size fits all solution to anything in a such a large nation with so many diverse cities, towns, rural communities, economies, topographies, ideologies, personalities, preferences, and politics.
  • Two: Giving the greatest portion power to the smallest level of government is also a strategic way of preventing abuse of power on a massive or national scale. Abuse is bound to happen in all levels of government but if the power is distributed so far and wide so that even the local governments, who’s power more directly affects the people, is still minimal and shared with other levels of government. This also ensures that the state and federal governments have a limited amount of power while also ensuring that if they ever did try something abusive they have to push past the local governments, who would or could simply refuse to implement these abusive policies.
  • Three: Ambition must be made to counteract ambition. Distributing power into so may different hands was a strategic way of pitting all the different levels of government against themselves. The assumption being that each part of government would of course clamor for power but would be counteracted in their pursuit of power by others in government who were also pursuing power. It was ingenious.
State of STEM (SoSTEM) Address (201401290030HQ)

So, if you want to visualize the American government, think of it like an upside down pyramid. The top layer–the local governments- is the largest and most important. These governments handle every little aspect of the day to day governing in their cities and towns, from roads, to parks, to local taxes, to schools, and policing. Go down a layer and that’s the state government. The state government oversees all of these little things to a limited extent, while also managing issues like, education, poverty, some policing, taxes, licenses and the delegation of specific powers to the local governments. Finally, the federal government–the smallest layer–handles big broad issues like post roads, currency, immigration, war, copyrights and a few other broad topics.

The question in my title is, how much discretion do local governments actually have?

This is an important question because these local government are the ones who are most directly affecting, us, the people. So, the answer to this question varies per state–hence, federalism.

State governments handle their local governments in two primary ways. They either choose to operate as a Dillon Rule state or a Home Rule state.

Dillon’s Rule takes a narrow approach to local authority, essentially stating that local governments only have the powers expressly granted to them by the state. 

  • The powers explicitly granted to them by the state
  • The powers necessarily or fairly implied in or incident to the powers expressly granted
  • The powers essential to the declared objects and purposes of the corporation, not simply convenient, but indispensable (National League of Cities)

Home Rule gives local governments greater autonomy and limits the power of states to interfere in local affairs. A municipality with Home Rule status can exercise any power and perform any function unless it is specifically prohibited from doing so by state law. (Illinois Municipal League)

In summary, some state governments have much more power over their local governments and the powers those local government’s possess, while others allow for more discretion at the local level. It’s important, as citizens, to understand how the power is distributed in our states so that we can influence the level of government that has the power to make the changes we hope to see made.

NASA Satellite Captures Super Bowl Cities - Phoenix [annotated]

In the next post, I’ll discuss the way that this power distribution is tied up in local charters, city councils and the general assembly.

The Liberty Belle

2 thoughts on “How Much Discretion Do Local Governments Have?”

  1. Pingback: How Much Discretion Do Local Governments Have? – The Liberty Belle –

  2. Ronald J Larson

    Good post , and we need to be sure these checks and balances are working , as an example when a county government abuses tons of federal road funds , it’s time for the feds to demand the county prosecutor or state dept of transportation take action against self serving politicians in county government and report what happened to U S DOT /FHWA . Like mis-apprpriating $317,096 to a road that does not exist !!! and that money can not be accounted for on any other road in the particular county.

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