Anyone who can succinctly define “Home Rule” without consulting an expert is to be commended. It’s not a well-known or easily explained term.
But, precisely for that reason, no one should summarily embrace or reject Home Rule without learning more about it.
With City Council’s approval Tuesday night of the first reading of a referendum for the spring primary, it appears likely Shamokin voters will be able to weigh in on the subject on May 21.
That leaves nearly four months to develop a vote based on facts, not fear or misinformation.
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The state Department of Community and Economic Development (DCED) offers a good starting point for learning about Home Rule.
The concept is relatively simple: Through Home Rule, “the basic authority to act in municipal affairs is transferred from state law, as set forth by the General Assembly, to a local charter, adopted and amended by the voters.”
That doesn’t mean anything goes. As DCED explains, Home Rule municipalities are still subject to the U.S and Pennsylvania constitutions and applicable state laws. Said another way, “local governments without Home Rule can only act where specifically authorized by state law; Home Rule municipalities can act anywhere except where they are specifically limited by state law.”
Home Rule became an option through an amendment to the state constitution in 1968. While proponents focused on “local control” and opponents warned of “chancy experiments in untested legal areas,” as DCED recounts it, Home Rule “has not revolutionized local government operation, nor has it entangled municipalities in legal difficulties or imprudent activities.”
So even it’s impact is undefined.
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Shamokin has been encouraged to pursue Home Rule by its advisers from Act 47, the program for financially distressed municipalities. In part that’s because Shamokin would be able to maintain its Act 47-allowed doubling of the earned income tax (EIT) (from 1 to 2 percent) after exiting the program. A past examination of city finances makes it clear that, without the additional revenue from the higher EIT, the city will be back in the red in short order.
One possible avenue that we believe is worthy of pursuit is for the Legislature to address the prospect of changing state law to allow a permanent 2 percent EIT. We don’t often encourage a permanent tax increase, but for municipalities like Shamokin — and there are many others that face the strain produced by a shrinking tax base and rising costs — it would be a much simpler solution than introducing a brand new form of government that is going to pursue the same objective.
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Note, however, we are not casting our “vote” here for or against Home Rule. We’re simply encouraging city residents to do their homework on Home Rule.