HISTORY: Home rule

S.C. Encyclopedia  |  The Local Government Act of 1975, otherwise known as the Home Rule Act of 1975, was passed by the South Carolina General Assembly to implement the revised Article VIII of the state constitution adopted in 1973 and dealing with local government. As amended, Article VIII conferred home rule on all South Carolina cities and counties and directed the General Assembly to establish standardized forms of city and county government. The 1975 act did this.

Home rule began as a national movement in the late 1800s. It challenged an established doctrine known as Dillon’s Rule, which stated that local governments have only those powers specifically delegated to them by the state and are creatures of the state. Dillon’s Rule spread from state to state and was even affirmed by the U.S. Supreme Court in 1903 and 1923. It was the controlling principle in South Carolina law as well until the state supreme court case Williams v. Town of Hilton Head (1993), in which the court ruled that the principle was invalidated by Article VIII of the constitution.

Prior to home rule in South Carolina, the General Assembly exercised nearly total control over local governments. Legislative delegations made local policy as well as state policy. Counties, for example, typically had their annual budgets passed by their state legislative delegations in Columbia. Cities required special acts of the assembly to allow them to annex territory or provide a new service to their citizens. In short, the legislature engaged in what might be termed “micromanagement” of local government.

Home rule came later to South Carolina than it did to many other states. In the 1960s the decisions of the U.S. Supreme Court in Baker v. Carr, Wesberry v. Sanders, and Reynolds v. Sims brought about the “one-man, one-vote” requirement for state legislatures, which resulted in the redrawing of legislative and electoral district lines. This, together with urbanization and the growing complexity of state government, led to a movement to give local governments more autonomy and restrict micromanagement by the General Assembly. Reapportionment resulted in a shift of power in the 1970s from rural legislators to urban- and suburban-elected legislators, who were more sympathetic to the home-rule argument.

The 1975 Home Rule Act provided for three forms of city government: weak-mayor, strong-mayor, and council-manager; and four forms of county government: council, council-supervisor, council-administrator, and council-manager. The powers and duties of each of the forms are uniform across the state, but individual cities and counties have discretion over what services they provide. It is notable that in South Carolina home rule applies only to cities and counties. Special-purpose governments and school districts were not given home rule by the 1975 act or Article VIII.

Counties are generally regarded as the primary beneficiaries of home rule in South Carolina since they were subject to a restrictive interpretation of their powers prior to Article VIII and the 1975 act. They now share the same powers as cities and have become “urban service” providers in many parts of South Carolina where large cities are not present.

The Home Rule Act did not, however, explicitly give counties and cities the authority to decide what to tax. Consequently, in the 1993 case of Williams v. Town of Hilton Head, the state supreme court interpreted the law as granting that authority. The decision touched off a dispute with the General Assembly, which worked to reassert its prerogative as the final authority regarding local government powers. In 1997 the assembly passed the Fiscal Authority Act, which restricted the fiscal autonomy of cities and counties. Legislators have also resisted any expansion of the rights of cities to annex new territory easily.

— Excerpted from an entry by Charlie B. Tyer.  This entry hasn’t been updated since 2006.  To read more about this or 2,000 other entries about South Carolina, check out The South Carolina Encyclopedia, published in 2006 by USC Press. (Information used by permission.) 

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