The Dillon Rule: Does Raleigh Know Best?

by John Ager

Asheville and Buncombe County have been targeted by the North Carolina General Assembly in the era of Republican dominance in Raleigh. Voters in Asheville in the recent election resoundingly rejected Raleigh dictating district elections in the city by a 3 to 1 margin, setting up yet again a costly battle in the courts. Districts have been in place for Buncombe County Commission races for three election cycles. Moreover, the General Assembly unsuccessfully attempted to transfer the Asheville water system to the MSD (Metropolitan Sewage District) after years of back and forth litigation. The Asheville Airport board was successfully reconfigured. Sales and Privilege tax revenues have been lost to the city, and the list could go on. What then is the legal arrangement between the General Assembly and local government entities? Is a Raleigh-knows-best approach a disavowal of small government Republican values?

Local governments in the United States have two basic structures: Home Rule or Dillon’s Rule. As the name implies, Home Rule allows local governments (municipalities and counties) wide discretion in making policy decisions. On the other hand, Dillon’s Rule states only allow local authority over specifically granted powers. If the state legislature has been silent, local governments have no authority to act. North Carolina is a Dillon’s Rule state.

From a political science point of view, there are pros and cons to both arrangements. State-wide consistency in rules and regulations is a desirable outcome of Dillon’s Rule, especially for companies considering a move into the state. On the other hand, local governments, especially large cities, often have policy issues that they need resolved and resent the meddling from the state house.

Historically, North Carolina has been a rural, small-town state. State management of policy makes more sense when that is the case. However, our state is growing rapidly, especially in large urban areas around Charlotte, Raleigh, Durham, Greensboro, and Winston-Salem. Managing large cities requires a lot more planning, transportation, zoning, education, and so on. In short, they require a lot more political decision-making to be successful. Urban areas tend to be more Democratic than Republican, in part because robust government is a necessity. Urban areas tend to be more ethnically diverse, and they are engines of economic vitality and wealth creation. North Carolina is now the ninth most populated state, at just over 10 million residents.

What happens when state government is dominated by rural legislators who bring with them an anti-urban bias? The result is likely to be Dillon’s Rule overreach in trying to micromanage local governments. It was a state legislator that famously called Asheville the “cesspool of sin.” And it is a debate that goes back to Jefferson and Hamilton and the founding fathers. Jefferson extolled the virtues of the independent yeoman farmer (even while he lived off the labor of slaves), while Hamilton believed the future of the nation was business and commerce.

The infamous House Bill 2 (the bathroom bill) was primarily an assertion by the General Assembly of its power as a Dillon’s Rule state. The preamble to the bill cites the state constitution and declares that local governments must have permission from the legislature to enact certain policies. It arose out of an effort by the Charlotte City Council to make accommodations for transgender bathroom use. The bill also forbade local governments from enacting minimum wage requirements and other commercial rules. While the bill was supported by the state Chamber of Commerce, political opposition and actual boycotts came from sports leagues and many corporations. It was a highlight of the different policy outlooks in the urban/rural political divide in our state.

Interestingly, the partial repeal of HB 2 (HB 142) restated that “No local government in this State may enact or amend an ordinance regulating private employment practices or regulating public accommodations.” But this provision sunsets at the end of 2020, seemingly opening the door to more home rule after that date.

Circling back to the Asheville Districts vote, North Carolina’s Dillon’s Rule appears to be heading to court once again. The bill, introduced and championed by Senator Chuck Edwards (who represents much of Fairview, including yours truly), requires that six districts be drawn for the six Asheville city council members. Only those living in each of these districts would vote for their single representative. The mayor would run “at large.” (Everyone in the city would vote for the mayor).  The bill required that the districts be drawn by November 1, a week before the last election. The city placed a referendum on the ballot that they believed was binding, and the districts were voted down handily. Every precinct with over 10 votes voted “No” although the TC Roberson District was close. A group created to encourage people to vote “Yes” was funded in large part by hotels in Asheville. After the vote, Senator Edwards declared the vote a sham. The city, on the other hand, said the vote precluded them from drawing any districts, and that there was state law supporting this view. Once again, the bulls eye will be on Dillon’s Rule as the court unravels the legal conflict. I salute my readers for wading through this arcane but important matter regarding how the General Assembly and local governments interact with each other.  And as always, I thank you for the opportunity to serve you in Raleigh.

Rep. John Ager, District 115 North Carolina House of Representatives

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