Home Rule is the power and authority of local governments to run their own affairs. In Alabama, the grant of power is contained in the Constitution or is delegated by the Alabama State Legislature by law. The term “local governments” includes counties, cities, and towns as well as local agencies which are given authority to perform specific functions. These include school boards which manage the public education systems in the various school districts; hospital boards that govern public hospitals; gas districts that distribute natural gas in specific communities; water authorities that maintain rural water systems; economic development districts that attract industry to specific area; and similar public agencies. Thus the grant of power may be general as in the case of cities and towns, or limited as in the case of counties and special local agencies. The limited grant is known as “limited home rule.”
Home Rule in Alabama is significantly limited by the Alabama Constitution. Counties have no general grant of power in the Constitution or from the legislature. Thus counties must go to the legislature for authority to engage in desired activities, either through constitutional amendments which must be initiated by the legislature, or by an act of the legislature (known as “local legislation”) giving the county authority to carry out the desired action. For example, a constitutional amendment authorized Mobile County to adopt a one-mill ad valorem tax for mosquito and rodent control (Amendment 351) and another authorized Limestone County to dispose of dead farm animals (Amendment 482); an act of the legislature permitted “flea markets to remain open on Sunday in Etowah County” (Act No. 647).
Municipal corporations (counties, cities, and towns) are provided for in Article XII, Sections 220-28, of the constitution, with such powers as may be delegated to them by the legislature. They may levy taxes (subject to constitutional limitations on ad valorem taxes), adopt zoning regulations, annex property, select and change their form of government, construct streets and assess the cost against the abutting property, engage in redevelopment and urban renewal projects and establish public agencies to operate such entities as hospitals, libraries, and recreational facilities. Counties that hold zoning power, taxing power, and other powers common to cities received these powers under local legislation authorizing them to pass ordinances and regulations on these and similar subjects.
The lack of home rule for counties in Alabama has resulted in the proliferation of local legislation permitting counties to do things not authorized by the state constitution. Alabama’s Constitution has been amended more than 700 times, and almost one-third of the amendments are local in nature, applying to only one county or city. A significant part of each legislative session is spent on local legislation, taking away time and attention of legislators from issues of statewide importance.
Proponents of home rule have urged the revision of Alabama’s Constitution to permit local citizens to make decisions affecting their interests through their local governments without their having to get permission or approval from the state legislature in Montgomery.
In 1973 the Alabama Constitutional Commission, created by Act No. 753, concluded its work with a report recommending a new state constitution. Among its proposed changes was a home rule provision that would authorize any city or county to adopt a charter spelling out the nature and extent of power and authority to be exercised by the respective unit of government choosing to have its own charter. No city would be required to have a “Home Rule” charter, but any such unit desiring home rule could have the power of local self-determination. To date, Alabama has not chosen to embrace home rule through constitutional amendment or the adoption of a new constitution, but the government hindrances posed by the lack of home rule ensure that it stays alive as a potential issue.
Alabama Constitution, Amendments 351, 482
Act 647, 1973 Acts of Alabama
Martin, David L. Alabama’s State and Local Governments. 3rd edition. Tuscaloosa: University of Alabama Press, 1994.
Stewart, William H., Jr. The Alabama Constitutional Commission: A Pragmatic Approach to Constitutional Revision. Tuscaloosa: University of Alabama Press, 1975.