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State-Local Relations

Last Updated: 2006

The relationship between state and local governments in the United States is often characterized as being one-sided, with state governments dominating the powers and prerogatives of local governments. Nevertheless, much of the interaction of citizens occurs with their local governments, whether it be at the county, city, school district, or special district level. These two levels of government have experienced an evolving relationship since the republic’s founding.

State-local relations are often viewed in legalistic terms. Early in the nation’s history, local governments were seen to be on equal footing with state governments, and local governments were self-governing entities within states. However, this perception of local government autonomy changed with the creation of Dillon’s Rule. As enunciated by John Forest Dillon, the chief justice of the Iowa Supreme Court in the mid-1800’s, local governments were at the mercy of state governments and their plenary, or complete, control. State governments had the supreme authority to create, destroy, and grant powers to localities, and local governmental power was allowed in only three distinct circumstances: those powers that were expressly granted by the state, those powers that were necessarily implied or incidental to those expressed powers, and those powers that were deemed absolutely critical to the purpose of the local government. Unless expressly granted by a state or implied by those expressed powers, Dillon’s Rule holds that local governments are strictly curtailed in the exercise of governing power.

Dillon’s Rule has subsequently been adopted throughout most of the United States, and therefore state governments, particularly legislatures, have had authority over local governmental powers. However, this one-sided relationship between state and local governments has undergone considerable transformation since Chief Justice Dillon’s edict. Modern-day relations between state and local governments are often founded upon charters. Similar to a state constitution and written by state legislatures, local charters give specific authority or powers to a local government, as well as define the structure of that government. Charters can exist in different forms: special act charters, general act charters, classified charters, and optional charters. The special act charter is an individualized grant of authority to a specific municipality or government, whether it is a large-scale city or a special district. The special act charter requires the state legislature to tailor the document to the needs of the local government. The general act charter system sought to eliminate the constant need to go back to the state capital and seek powers and authority, as had been the case under the special act system. By creating one charter for all cities in a state, the general act granted the same powers and structures to all, no matter the size or needs. Within the two extremes lies the classified charter system, which creates categories of cities, generally based on population, and applies a single charter to cities within a broadband of one category. Finally, a state may create optional charters, in which cities select a charter for their municipality. All of these approaches, however, begin with the state granting authority to municipalities, and this state predominance has defined the relations between the two levels of governments.

In addition, many state legislatures adopt “local” statutes, or laws, which affect a specific local government. Usually these laws are adopted by the entire legislature when representatives from that local area agree on the legislation. During the Progressive era, in response to what was perceived as constant intervention by state officials in local affairs, the legal principle of “home rule” was established to create a more balanced approach to state intervention and local self-rule.

Begun in Iowa after the Civil War and subsequently adopted in over 40 states, home rule allows local governments to create their own charters, subject to first voter approval and then usually state approval. Home rule varies from state to state, and generally allows local governments the flexibility to change their structural form and/or ability to deal with local problems without prior state approval. Yet, even within this allocation of authority to localities, state governments have retained power by placing restrictions on home rule authority. While some states allow localities wide discretion (often described as broad functional authority), others grant only limited functional authority, in which cities may be able to perform some functions, but not others, dependent on the allocation by the state.

While most relationships between state and local governments can be categorized as legalistically “one-sided,” the need for implementing and administering public policies has led states and local governments to form closer connections between them. During the twentieth century, as the expectation of government in general grew with the advent of the New Deal and Great Society programs, state and local governments grew in size and resources to become more service providers of public policies for their citizenries. Yet, as state and local governments found themselves with increased responsibilities, the relationship between them continued to be tested by state superiority, as well as with innovative experiments at cooperation between the two levels of government.

As demands in education, the environment, transportation, health and welfare programs, economic development, and other policy concerns continue to expand, state and local governments have developed new approaches toward working with each other. Some approaches continued the idea of state superiority, mostly through mandates by state governments on local governments to implement programs. The most egregious forms of mandates, according to local officials, are those state mandates imposed without funding. Beyond direct orders imposed on local governments, states have become more flexible in their relationship with localities. States may provide technical assistance for local governments, aiding local officials in carrying out policy programs or activities, or may offer grants-in-aid to pay for new services or activities at the local level. States may work cooperatively through administrative agencies to help cities and counties develop programs, such as economic incentives, to attract jobs and employment opportunities. In addition, states may allow cities to combine with counties to reduce duplication of administrative services and programs, namely through the consolidation of city and county governments and/or the annexation of smaller cities within growing metropolitan areas.

Similar to the relationship between the national and state governments, state-local relations will continue to be overshadowed by state superiority, but with the recognition that tensions will continue between state and local governments.

SEE ALSO: Civil WarCounty GovernmentGrants-in-AidGreat SocietyHome RuleIntergovernmental RelationsLocal GovernmentNew DealSpecial DistrictsState LegislatureTransportation PolicyWelfare Policy


Russell L. Hanson, Governing Partners: State-Local Relations in the United States (Boulder, CO: Westview Press, 1998); David C. Nice and Patricia Frederickson, The Politics of Intergovernmental Relations (Chicago: Nelson-Hall, 1996); and Joseph F. Zimmerman, State-Local Relations: A Partnership Approach (Westport, CT: Praeger, 1995).