Home Rule: Understanding the Legislation that Created Local Government in South Carolina

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Are you curious to learn how South Carolina’s counties evolved into the local governments we know today? In this episode, we take an in-depth look at the groundbreaking Home Rule Act with special guest C.D. Rhodes, a partner at Pope Flynn and a leading authority on local government powers. Discover how the events of 1973 and 1975 drastically reshaped the political landscape, shifting power from state senators to local citizens, and learn why understanding Home Rule is crucial for engaged community members today.

Transcript

Katy Smith:

Simple Civics listeners, this is an episode we should have done ages ago.

It is about Home Rule and the way that our state made a big shift in the mid-1970s to give independent authority to local elected governments.

Just as disco and Saturday morning cartoons were coming on the scene, so were county councils and locally determined county budgets.

Now if you’re thinking, that’s so long ago, I’m not sure it’s relevant or that I need to know about it, think again.

Home Rule is the foundation of all local government in South Carolina.

The hard work of the legislature at that time and all of the work of cities and counties in the few years that followed laid all of the groundwork for local government today.

Fortunately, we’ll make it easy for you to learn about Home Rule through this conversation with an expert on the topic.

I’m Katy Smith with Greater Good Greenville, and on this episode of Simple Civics: Greenville County, I talk with C.D. Rhodes, a partner with the law firm Pope Flynn.

He represents local governments across the state and focuses on public financing and advising them on their powers and how they can go about exercising them.

He covers why Home Rule came to be and what it means for all of us across the state.

So C.D., we’re here to talk about Home Rule. And let’s just introduce this.

This is my perspective. I know Home Rule is something you know deeply about, and you know how it fits into so much of our state.

I have so often been in a public meeting that Home Rule is mentioned.

We can’t do that because of Home Rule, or we do that because of Home Rule, or before Home Rule…

And I always get a little lost, and it feels like it’s the 301 level of political science, and I just want to go to the 201.

But knowing how it’s critical to everything in local government.

Tell us about Home Rule in South Carolina.

C.D. Rhodes:

That is an open-ended question. So you’re not alone, first of all.

It’s a term that gets tossed around a lot, and I can’t tell you how many meetings I’ve been in where someone says that they can or cannot do something because of Home Rule, and I think, what in the world does Home Rule have to do with that?

Katy Smith:

So it’s an excuse as often as anything else?

C.D. Rhodes:

Oh, without question, without question. But it is also without question the kind of guiding principle of local government in South Carolina. And it morphs a little bit every year. I feel like every year we get a little further and further away from what Home Rule really meant, both probably to the good and to the bad, both at local government level and at the state level, and at the judicial level.

So it is an ever-evolving issue, but it is why we have the local governments that we have today.

So yeah, absolutely, really important.

Katy Smith:

So at the heart, 1973 is the year that Home Rule came to be. What happened in 1973?

C.D. Rhodes:

So let me take a step back to get to kind of how we got to 1973.

And it requires talking a little bit about South Carolina history and how counties in particular were run prior to Home Rule.

So there are really kind of two kind of high-level forms of governance.

Home Rule is where you essentially have those powers that you have been given, and then you have a broad suite of implied powers.

So you can do pretty much anything you need to do in order to accomplish your kind of larger purposes.

The flip side of that is what’s called Dillon’s rule.

And Dillon was, and if I get this wrong, there are lots of lawyers across the state who will yell at me.

I think he was a judge in Iowa.

And he kind of stated this rule, which is the opposite of Home Rule.

You can do only those things. You can exercise only those powers that have been expressly granted to you and those that are necessarily implied by your express powers.

So it’s much more restricted. You can only do certain things that the legislative body that you’re subject to has told you that you can do and generally no others.

Before 1973, counties, special purpose districts, and also to a somewhat lesser degree, but somewhat, cities operated under more of a Dillon’s rule perspective.

Counties in particular were nothing like the counties that we see today.

They could do very, very few things. The list was short.

They could do education. They could build and repair roads and bridges.

They could maintain and support prisoners. They could pay for jurors.

They could support paupers.

They could pay past indebtedness, and they could provide for certain other county purposes, but a very, very limited suite of powers.

They couldn’t do any of the stuff that we expect counties to do today.

Katy Smith:

Right. So no sewer, no fire is in there.

C.D. Rhodes:

That’s exactly right.

Katy Smith:

Yeah.

C.D. Rhodes:

And the, kind of the overarching or the, you know, the real kind of limitation on county power is that they were really not controlled at the local level.

By and large, they were controlled by their local delegations.

So they didn’t have, you know, nowadays counties adopt budgets of, you know, millions or hundreds of millions of dollars in some cases. That did not happen pre-Home Rule.

That budget was enacted through what’s called then a supply bill.

And that supply bill was enacted by the state legislature, and it was generally prepared and approved by the local delegation.

And the local delegation was limited to, you know, senators and representatives that exclusively, by and large, served individual counties, especially the senators served individual counties.

And the senators were the absolute center of power within counties.

And it was, you know, it was granular to the point of, the senator deciding the backhoe that the county needed to buy or whether the county needed to hire a new sheriff’s deputy. I mean, it was very, very specific, very granular.

And the counties had very limited ability to exercise any fiscal autonomy at all.

And they didn’t even have the county councils that you had now.

We’ve had a supervisor and a couple of commissioners, and that was it.

So county government was just a tiny little fraction of what it is today.

That started, you know, there started to, you started to see pushback against that system in the 30s and the 40s and, well, really 30s and 40s.

And a lot of it had to do with lack of transparency. Folks wanted to know kind of how these decisions were being made.

The fact that they were often being made by a couple of people was not ideal.

You know, these are bills that are enacted by the legislature, but they had a policy of deferring to the local delegations.

So if the local delegation said that something was going to happen in McCormick County or Abbeville or Clarendon, then that’s the way it was.

And every other senator or house member went along with them.

But there was pushback against that because the power was just so tightly consolidated.

And the real death knell to the kind of pre-Home Rule form of county governance was really the adoption of kind of the one man, one vote and the mandated reapportionment of especially the Senate seats across the state.

That pre-Home Rule system works well where you’ve got one guy who represents one county but now when that one guy has got a little bit of Sumter County and a little bit of Lee County and a little bit of Clarendon County and you know maybe a little bit of Kershaw County in his district… all of a sudden that starts to make even less sense… it didn’t make sense before but it makes a lot lot less sense now.

And that’s where you started to see this structure really start to fall apart.

And you started to really see the run-up to this push for self-governance among South Carolina local governments.

And that’s kind of how it all fell apart. That’s where it all started.

Katy Smith:

Wow. It seems like then it was this cascade if you had, like, just to put names in there that, of course, were not there at the time.

But like if Senator Ross Turner was our one Greenville county senator who made decisions about things not only like the budget but the backhoe that we might purchase and now he has to share this territory with a lot of other people, which was its own, I’m sure, governmental puzzle… now we got to figure out all right how do we make decisions.

C.D. Rhodes:

How do we do this and so there was committee was formed in the ’60s and it was created really to look at our Constitution that we still operate under today, but that was in effect at the time, was our 1895 Constitution.

It had been enacted, obviously, in a very different time.

There was a lot of Jim Crow policies that were baked into that Constitution.

It was antiquated in lots and lots and lots of ways.

And this was just one of them. And so there was not just on the Home Rule side, but there was a real need to look at it broadly.

The West Committee was formed in the 60s to look at our Constitution and recommend amendments to it.

And one of those was Home Rule. So that was put to the voters.

It was among lots of amendments.

Then you have kind of baked into your head the date of March 7th, 1973.

That was the date that the Home Rule amendments to the Constitution were enacted.

And that was the date that, although there was a lot of work left to be done at that point, lots and lots of work, that was the date that Home Rule was kind of made effective in South Carolina.

Katy Smith:

So March 7th, 1973 establishes Home Rule.

And that was the result of a whole lot of work. But it also then began another whole set of work to now determine, well, how do counties function, right? Can you explain what happened next?

C.D. Rhodes:

Counties, cities, special purpose districts, all of our forms of local government were all affected by the Home Rule amendments.

So the next step was to enact all of these.

A lot of this stuff was kind of high-minded principles, but the General Assembly had a lot of work to do to put meat on the bone, so to speak.

So the Home Rule Act was enacted in 1975.

And that is what really a lot of those laws that were put in place then are what we still rely on today.

And probably the biggest chunk of that were the provisions that gave counties all of the powers that they now have.

So they flipped that Dillon’s Rule, Home Rule paradigm on its head.

Now counties have this broad suite of powers.

They can do all of these kind of municipal-level things. They can provide fire service. They can provide water and sewer service if they want to.

So that was absolutely critical. The other kind of big change that it, and this really affects lots of folks in their kind of day-to-day lives today, is it authorized counties not only to provide these services, but also to provide them in certain areas and to tax people at different levels based on the services that they, that they receive.

So counties now have the ability not only to do a countywide fire district if they want to, but they can also create, we call them taxing districts, which are really what replaced the old special purpose districts.

The reason that after Home Rule, the General Assembly gave up its ability to create special purpose districts, as it had done hundreds and hundreds of times pre-Home Rule, is because they pushed that power down to the counties and allowed them to create these taxing districts.

That was the replacement for the old SPDs. So, you know, Greenville County is a great example.

There are, gosh, I wish I could tell you the number.

There are a number of county fire taxing districts that look and operate a whole lot like the fire special purpose districts.

The only difference is they are county-created instead of being kind of General Assembly-created.

They levy special taxes just within those areas.

They provide service just within those areas, at least in Greenville County and lots of other counties across the state. They’re governed by their own commission.

They look a lot like SPDs. But they are ultimately agencies, parts of county government.

You have county taxing districts that after the flood back in 2015, you had a lot of homeowners associations, you know, these property owners associations around these old lakes that had dams and these dams got washed out.

They didn’t have lien powers. They didn’t have the ability to borrow money to rebuild these dams. They were privately owned.

And so lots of counties across the state came in and helped these POAs out by creating taxing districts just within the homeowners that relied on that lake so that they could levy taxes to then go out and borrow money to rebuild their dams.

So these are really important parts of local government. They aren’t their own local governments.

They provide lots of services to people across the state, but they were an absolutely critical part of the adoption of Home Rule in South Carolina.

Katy Smith:

So the work in 1973 and all that preceded it, and then the work in 1975 to set up our local governments was a big, hard thing that lots of people had to wrestle with.

What do you think is kind of the next big hard thing in our state that helps make government overall function well for people in local communities?

C.D. Rhodes:

As far as local government is concerned, the next step, and this is when I say local government, I mean, I’m including school districts in this mix.

The next step is, you know, how do we adequately fund local government services and capital needs in modern times? We have debt limits.

We have limitations on millage increases.

All of that was done prior to all of the inflation that we just saw over the last couple of years. It didn’t take any of that into account.

And, you know, one of the, you know, the book on Home Rule is the Underwood book, Lowell Underwood… the road to self-governance. It’s volume two of his four-volume set.

And one of the points that he makes in that book is that, or at least he asks the question of whether by imposing all of these limits on, especially fiscal limits on local government, if you aren’t ultimately just putting them in a position to find ways around them, which is exactly what has happened and what is going to continue to happen. Because ultimately…

All of these are needs that have to be met. These services have to be provided.

All these services cost money.

And nowhere is that more acute than in school districts.

So, you know, how are we going to… a new school used to cost $5 million or $10 million.

Now a new school will cost $60 million. And that’s a cheap one.

How do we create or how do we allow school districts to build new schools when they have debt limits that are in less than $10 million for a lot of rural school districts? How do you get there?

That, to me, is the thing that hasn’t been – there’s been lots of attempts at it. There have been band-aids.

There have been pushes in the right direction, but there have not been any real solutions.

So how do we solve that problem while also ensuring that everybody is being fiscally responsible and that you don’t just give people complete and total autonomy?

That’s going to be a really tough fight when it finally comes to a head, and it will at some point.

I don’t know how all those problems are going to be solved, but they’re going to have to be.

At some point in time, some of these restrictions are going to have to change.

Katy Smith:

What strikes me is that these are the most important kinds of questions for elected officials to wrestle with, along with local leaders and, you know, citizens and voters.

But they’re a little hard to get your head around, and they take multi-session work.

And in this environment of like, kind of the next big, shiny object that voters get interested or animated about, you know, it really takes some serious leadership and maturity as a leader to be willing to take it on.

But that’s what we need in our state to keep us moving forward.

C.D. Rhodes:

That’s exactly right. I mean, you know, these are, local government is the governmental entity or body that most people deal with most often.

Every time you send your kid to school, you’re dealing with a local government.

Every time you roll your trash out to the curb, you’re dealing with the local government. Every time you flush your toilet, by and large, you’re dealing with the local government.

Katy Smith:

People might take that a lot of different ways.

C.D. Rhodes:

That’s exactly right. But I mean, you are, you know, you are interacting with a local government entity nearly every second of every day of your life, but it’s not what gets the headlines.

It’s not what gets everybody excited right up to the point when it does.

And it, you know, it’s seen to be a little bit boring.

It certainly is not what the General Assembly spends a lot of time thinking about.

But these are the governmental entities that really affect people’s day-to-day lives.

And if we ignore them, then we do so at our own peril.

Katy Smith:

Well, C.D., I’m so glad that you are paying attention and helping us do the same with more insight, and really appreciate it.

C.D. Rhodes:

There are a lot of folks out there who are working really, really hard to make sure that local government functions well and has the ability, the powers that it needs to be able to do that.

The Municipal Association of South Carolina, the Association of Counties, the Association of Special Purpose Districts, a bunch of kind of school district centric associations are all out there.

I’m out there representing individual clients. These people are out there in the statehouse every day affecting policy and trying to make sure that the stuff is done and right so that these folks can go out there and do their jobs.

And they really are the kind of unsung heroes of this whole situation.

Katy Smith:
Well, I’m grateful to you and to them for all that you do to help get stuff done in our communities. Thanks for being here.

Catherine Puckett: Simple Civics: Greenville County is a project of Greater Good Greenville. Greater Good Greenville was catalyzed by the merger of the Nonprofit Alliance and the Greenville Partnership for Philanthropy. You can learn more on our website at greatergoodgreenville.org. This is a production of Podcast Studio X.

Image via Kruck20 from Getty Images Pro on Canva.

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