What Makes Texas, Texas? Political Culture in the Lone Star State

“[Texas] is America on steroids. Think of the characteristics that make America distinctive–its size and diversity, its optimism and self-confidence, its crass materialism and bravado, its incredible ability to make something out of nothing–and they exist in their purest form in Texas.” The Future is – Texas; Texas, 2002


Individualism is the belief that individuals are responsible for their own welfare.  Individuals are encouraged to have initiative and work hard to become successful in society.  Through the lens of individualism, what is good for society is based on what is good for individuals, and “[g]overnment activity is encouraged only to the extent that it creates opportunity for individual achievement” (Roots of Texas Politics, n.d.).  Individualism helps to explain the “pull yourself up by your bootstraps” mentality of many Texans.  Texas’s individualism is rooted in the state’s frontier heritage.


Traditionalism refers to upholding or maintaining tradition, particularly in resistance to change.  Under traditionalism, the government is viewed as a mechanism through which the existing social order can be preserved; in other words, government action should reinforce the power of society’s dominant groups.  Traditionalism, “emphasizing deference to elite rule within a hierarchical society and traditional moral values, represents the values of 19th century Southerners who migrated to the rich cotton land of East Texas”(Roots of Texas Politics, n.d.).

Limited Government

Closely associated with individualism is the belief that the government must be limited in its power and responsibilities.  The belief in limited government is associated with concerns that a powerful government is likely to threaten individual rights.  The structure of Texas’s government as outlined in the Texas Constitution of 1876 screams limited government.  The belief in limited government is a key component of U.S. political culture that developed out of concerns that a powerful government is likely to threaten individual rights, and Anglo-American settlers brought this belief in limited government with them as they colonized Texas during the time of empresarios following the ratification of the Adams-Onís Treaty in 1819.  During the early 1800s, there were also many Mexican citizens who also favored limited government known as the federalistas.  Texas’s experience as an occupied military district under Governor Davis during Radical Reconstruction solidified limited government as a cornerstone of Texas political culture.

Private Property, Free Enterprise, and Entrepreneurialism

Private property (the ownership of property by private parties), free enterprise (an economic system in which private business competes in a market largely free of state control), and entrepreneurialism (the ability to start new businesses) are all fundamental to capitalism – and Texas is known for its ardent support of limited government regulations and free markets.  As with the belief in limited government, these beliefs are rooted in Texas’s experiences as a territory of Spain and, later, Mexico and the influence of Anglo-American settlers.

Popular Sovereignty

Popular sovereignty is the belief that the ultimate authority in society rests with the people.  Each person has sovereignty over themselves.  People may delegate some of their sovereign powers to the government, which in turn is required to serve according to the will of the people.  In Texas, popular sovereignty stemmed in large part from dissatisfaction with the perceived lack of representation as a territory of Mexico due to 1) being combined with Coahuila, which was more densely populated and, as such, able to disregard Texans’ interests, 2) the rise of centralistas (think Antonio López de Santa Anna) who favored the concentration of government authority in the national government, and 3) the influence of the United States.

Freedom and personal liberty

Freedom and personal liberty refer to the freedom to engage in a variety of practices without governmental interference and discrimination; as such, it is closely related to belief in limited government.  The values of freedom and personal liberty are reflected in the protection of various civil liberties (freedom of speech; right to bear arms; etc.), the promotion of economic freedom, and the emphasis of the rights of citizenship over its obligations.  Freedom and personal liberty are closely related to limited government, popular sovereignty, and natural rights (the belief that people are born with rights that cannot be taken away by the government without their consent).


Despite its flaws, Texas “has an enthusiasm for openness . . . [and] is enthusiastically mixing all sorts of cultures — from the South, south-west and the other side of the border — into a distinctive blend” (The Future is – Texas; Texas, n.d.) that can be seen in our state’s music, art, and food [Tex-Mex!].  Texas has always had a certain level of openness due to the state’s export-based economy and a diverse population consisting of different groups of people with their own distinctive cultures (including indigenous tribes, Spaniards, French, Tejanos, Anglo-Americans, Texians, African Americans, Irish, Germans,  Czech).  Texas remains a diverse state in terms of race and ethnicity.


Populism refers to the hostility of common people toward concentrated political and economic power and the powerful.  It is often portrayed as “the people” versus “the elite.”  Texas’s populist tendencies are rooted in the belief that “government power should be used to protect individuals from exploitation by powerful corporations, excessive wealth, or government itself” (Roots of Texas Politics, n.d.).

State Pride

The United States is a patriotic country.  Patriotism refers to the love of one’s country and respect for its symbols and principles.  Patriotism helps unify people in their recognition of the authority of governance.  In the U.S., however, there are a handful of states with extremely strong state pride – and Texas is one of them, alongside states such as Ohio, New Mexico, Alaska, Maine, Montana, and Colorado.  State pride in Texas is so strong that there’s even a Wikipedia page about it!  Our strong state pride is the byproduct of our state’s history – not every state can say it was once an independent country, after all.

Our Differences: Less Significant than Our Similarities

If you watch the news or pay attention to what is going on in Washington, D.C., it may seem as though our country is more divided than ever.  This division at the national level results in large part from the fact that the Democratic Party, which is ideologically liberal, is becoming more liberal as a whole, while the Republican Party, which is ideologically conservative, is becoming more conservative as a whole, causing the two parties to move further apart on the ideological spectrum (a phenomenon called polarization).

When it comes to Texas, however, this phenomenon is not as pervasive.  The Democratic Party of Texas is not the same thing as the Democratic Party in national government, nor is the Republican Party of Texas identical to the Republican Party in national government.  In Texas, the political differences between Democrats and Republicans, between immigrants or naturalized citizens and native-born citizens, and between rural and urban residents exist, “but they’re not as galvanizing in Texas as they are across the national level . . . Texas is unique, and Texans share really strong identities, even across those demographics” (Christiana Lang, as quoted by Ramsey, 2021).

Elazar: State Political Cultures

Daniel Elazar argued that the political culture within states of the United States could be divided into three general types:

  • individualistic political culture, which emphasizes private initiative with a minimum of government interference.  The role of government should be limited to protecting individual rights and ensuring that social and political relationships are based on merit rather than tradition, family ties, or personal connections
  • traditionalistic political culture, which sees the role of government as the preservation of tradition and the existing social order.  Government leadership is in the hands of an established social elite, and the level of participation by ordinary citizens in the policy-making process is relatively low
  • moralistic political culture, in which people expect the government to intervene in the social and economic affairs of the state, promoting the public welfare and advancing the public good.  Participation in political affairs is regarded as one’s civic duty

Elazar attributed the geographic distribution of individualistic, traditionalistic, and moralistic political cultures across states (see Figure 1) to migratory patterns of populations.

Texas = Hybrid

According to Elazar, Texas has a hybrid political culture that includes both traditionalistic and individualistic elements.

Traditionalistic Characteristics

  1. Long history as a one-party state
  2. Low levels of voter turnout
  3. Social and economic conservativism

Individualistic Characteristics

  1. Strong support for private business
  2. Opposition to big government
  3. Faith in individual initiative

The structure, powers, and functions of our state government, both as outlined in the Texas Constitution of 1876 and in practice, reflect our state political culture.  Political culture also shapes the context within which politics occurs, which influences things like what political parties and organized interests look like and what roles political parties, organized interests, and citizens take on when it comes to campaigns, elections, and policy-making.

“Taken together,  individualism and traditionalism make Texas a politically conservative state, hostile to government activity, especially government interference in the economy . . . However, while individualism and traditionalism generally reinforce a conservative political environment, they can also exist in uncomfortable tension with one another.  For whereas the individualistic thread in Texas culture stresses individual freedom from government intrusion, the traditionalistic thread can foster the government’s promotion of particular moral values upon those very same individuals.” (Roots of Texas Politics, n.d.)

Texas Today


Over the past few decades, Texas has experienced rapid and continued population growth, with an increase of 4.3 million from 2000 to 2010, and an increase of 4 million from 2010 to 2020.  This rate of population growth outpaces many other states; for that reason, Texas gained four seats in the U.S. House of Representatives following the 2010 Census and an additional two seats following the 2020 Census.

Today, Texas is the second most populated state in the United States, with a population of over 29.1 million people, of which:

  • 6.9% are under 5 years of age, 25.5% are under 18 years of age, and 12.9% are 65 years of age or older;
  • 50.3% are female
  • 41.2% are white, 39.7% are Hispanic or Latino, 12.9% are Black or African American, 5.2% are Asian, 1.0% are American Indian or Alaskan Native, 0.1% are Native Hawaiian or Pacific Islander, and 2.1% are two or more races (Texas is a majority-minority state because less than 50% of the population are non-Hispanic white persons)
  • 17% were foreign-born persons

While there are still many rural areas in Texas, its population is increasingly residing in urban areas.  Today, three of the largest 10 cities in the United States are in Texas: Houston (#4, with a population of nearly 2.4 million); San Antonio (#7, with a population of nearly 1.6 million); and Dallas (#9, with a population of about 1.4 million).

Most Texans graduate high school (83.7% of persons 25 years of age or older); however, significantly fewer graduate college with a four-year degree (29.9% of persons 25 years of age or older).

The median household income in Texas in 2019 was $61,874, and the per capita income (average individual income) was $31,277; 13.6% were in poverty.  That same year, 64.2% of persons 16 years of age or older were employed; among females, 57.8% of persons 16 years of age or older were employed.

For more statistics about Texas, check out the U.S. Census’s Texas QuickFacts page.

Ideological Distribution

Most people in the U.S. fall into two ideologies:

  • Conservatives, which generally favor limited government in social and/or economic life, based on the belief that a big government can only infringe on our individual, personal, and economic rights (a government is best that governs least); conservative ideology is generally status-quo-oriented
  • liberals, which generally views government action as necessary to ensure people are as free as possible and believe government should protect individual liberties and rights and provide social services based on equality; liberal ideology tends to view change as progressive and, at times, necessary for the greater good of society

Texas is considered a “center-right” state.  Individualistic and traditionalistic cultural elements have combined to produce conservatism in our government.  Random sample polls of registered voters have supported this statement by consistently showing that most Texans who are registered to vote currently identify themselves as moderates or conservatives.

This does not imply, however, that all Texans are conservative, nor does it imply that all conservative Texans share the same beliefs regarding government and politics.  Indeed, the Threads of Texas project identified seven different segments of Texans that differ when it comes to “their orientation and emotion towards change and their understanding of what it means to be Texan” (Ramsey, 2021):

  • Lone Star Progressives: liberal, highly engaged, alienated, critical, and empathetic
  • Civic Pragmatists: engaged, civic-minded, pragmatic, rational, and measured
  • Rising Mavericks: younger, diverse, proud, critical, multifaceted, and politically informed
  • Apolitical Providers: lower income, equality-focused, detached, apprehensive, and apolitical
  • Die-hard Texans: proud, Texan-centered, optimistic, traditional, culturally connected, and politically disengaged
  • Texas Faithful: patriotic, traditional, faith-oriented, skeptical, and conspiratorial
  • Heritage Defenders: white, conservative, partisan, libertarian, and embattled


Texas has transitioned over time from an economy based largely on agricultural products, to one dominated by the oil industry, to the highly diversified economy that exists in the state today.

During Rick Perry’s time as governor, many businesses, including many companies in the automotive manufacturing and information technology industries, have opened new locations and/or relocated their corporate headquarters to Texas due to low taxes, generous subsidies, low regulations, and a large workforce.  This trend has continued during Greg Abbott’s governorship — Tesla’s decision to construct the Gigafactory automotive manufacturing facility in Austin (and their more plans to construct the “Bobcat Project” facility next to the Gigafactory) is one of many, many examples of businesses choosing to expand their operations within our state.

Today, Texas’s GDP (gross domestic product) is larger than that of some countries.  Texas creates one out of every four jobs in the U.S. (with greater job creation than California, the most populated state).  Texas also leads in exports; indeed, the state “has always been an export-based economy, with first cotton, then energy and now high-tech linking it to global markets” (The future is – Texas; Texas, 2002)

What is Political Culture?

Underlying every political system is a unique political culture, or commonly shared ideas, beliefs, and values about a nation or state’s history, citizenship, and government held by a population.  Political culture is based on normative or prescriptive statements about how things ought to be and includes both formal rules and informal customs and traditions.

Political culture generally remains relatively stable over time because important ideas, beliefs, values, customs, and traditions are passed down generationally through various agents including families, schools, the media, and the government through the process of political socialization.  Political socialization helps to ensure that majority of citizens are well grounded in and committed to the values that sustain that political system.  This does not suggest, however, that political culture is uniform and inflexible.  Political culture often consists of diverse subcultures based on characteristics such as race, ethnicity, socioeconomic status, and geographic location.  Furthermore, political and historical events can reshape attitudes and beliefs and cause shifts in political culture.

What Does Political Culture Do?

Provides political system with distinctive characteristics

Political culture significantly influences government and politics within a nation or state.  Political culture shapes the way constitutions are written, the type of government institutions adopted it shapes the type of government institutions adopted, the boundaries of governmental authority, and the role of citizens.

Political culture binds us together

A stable political culture   Political culture unites populations by focusing on what we have in common.  Political culture also provides a framework for disagreement and conflict resolution by setting the boundaries of acceptable political behavior in society.  Furthermore, political culture benefits political systems through cultivating and maintaining diffuse support characterized by political stability, acceptance of the legitimacy of government, and a common goal of preserving the system in place.

Inefficiency & Corruption in Local Government

Inefficiency in local government often results from either lack of coordination or pooling of resources and poor staffing/unqualified personnel.  The most common forms of corruption found in local government include bribery, extortion, embezzlement, graft, and nepotism.

Corruption in local government is what led to many of the institutional frameworks that are now used in local government.  For example, Dillon’s rule was proposed in response to concerns about irresponsible, unresponsive, and corrupt local governments; corruption in municipal government resulted in the creation of the council-manager system; and elected municipal and special district offices in Texas are now selected through nonpartisan elections.

Even with reforms to reduce corruption and increase accountability, transparency, and efficiency in local government, corruption and inefficiency in local government still occur, as the case of Progreso, Texas illustrates:

For almost a decade—from 2004 to 2013—several members of the same family, all Progreso government officials, used their positions to exact bribes and kickbacks from city and school district service providers. Through their illegal activities, they distorted the contract playing field, cheated the very citizens they purported to serve, stole education money from the children whose educations they were supposed to ensure, and lined their own pockets in the process.  (Corruption in a Small Texas Town, 2014).

A Closer Look: Texas Counties

Texas counties have several opportunities to be inefficient and engage in corruption because:

  • counties, as local governments, come into direct contact with individuals more often than state governments and the federal government
  • counties use partisan elections to select key county officials
  • most counties employ the patronage system (also known as the spoils system) in staffing
  • most counties do not have a centralized purchasing department
  • in most counties, commissioners are responsible for running the county government in their districts

Local governments, in general, are susceptible to corruption due to their proximity to, and daily interaction with, individuals.  More interaction with individuals is not necessarily a bad thing; in fact, it can promote civic knowledge and civic engagement.  The more frequently government officials meet with individuals, however, the more likely they are to encounter opportunities for certain forms of corruption, such as bribery.

Partisan elections and patronage systems increase the likelihood that key county officials and county staff working within the various county government departments will be selected based on nepotism or political loyalty as opposed to merit.

The lack of centralization when it comes to governance and purchasing in counties may result in poor coordination and duplication.  For example, in the majority of Texas counties, county commissioners are responsible for road construction and maintenance in their districts.  This decentralized model to governance, combined with a lack of centralized purchasing, means that counties may expend more money than they would have had it pooled their resources when developing requests for bids from private companies and renting or purchasing equipment and materials.

Special Districts in Texas: The Basics

Special districts are local governments that exist separately from county and municipal governments and perform a single function or limited set of related functions.  Special districts have significant powers, including the ability to impose and collect taxes and fees, issue bonds, borrow money, contract with other entities, and buy, sell, or lease property.  The most commonly created special districts in Texas are independent school districts.  Other examples of special districts include airport authorities, community college districts, library districts, municipal utility districts (which provide water, sewage, drainage, and other utility-related services to residents of the district), and economic districts.

“With the exception of school districts, historically most special districts have as their constitutional basis two amendments to the Constitution of 1876: (1) Article III, section 52 (1904), allowing the formation of special districts that could incur indebtedness up to one-fourth of the assessed property valuation, and (2) the conservation amendment, Article XVI, section 59 (1917), allowing the establishment of conservation and reclamation districts with no limit as to amount of debt or taxation.” (Smith, Tax Districts, Special, n.d.)

Similar to cities, special districts are formed through citizen input – residents within a proposed boundary may petition to create a special district.  The Texas legislature or a state bureaucratic agency (depending on the type of special district in question) then decides whether to authorize its creation.  Special districts operate under either the county commissioner’s court or a board of directors, which can be appointed by the special district or elected at-large by voters in the geographic boundary encompassed by the special district.

Even though special districts are the most common type of local government within the United States, special districts may be thought of as shadow governments or ghost governments because they tend to operate with little oversight from the state and/or the citizens who live within the special district.

Municipal Government in Texas: The Basics

Municipal governments oversee the operation and functions of geographic areas that are smaller than counties, including cities and townships.  In most places, municipal government is considered the level of government closest to the people.  Municipal governments provide a variety of services to local residents, including utilities, parks and recreation, street maintenance/construction and public transportation, and public safety.  Municipal governments are responsible for addressing issues relating to zoning, building regulations, and economic development.  Municipal governments generally have more ordinance authority than do counties.

Unlike Texas counties, which are created by the Texas legislature, Texas cities develop more directly from citizen input: to create a new municipal government, residents directly petition the state of Texas.  The Texas Constitution of 1876, as amended and statutory laws passed by the Texas legislature, give cities more discretion than counties to adapt to change in areas such as city organization, election systems, local laws, and forms of government.  The resulting flexibility better equips cities with the ability to carry out local government functions in a rapidly changing state.

Mayor-Council &  Council-Manager Systems

Most municipal governments in the United States use one of two basic structures:

  • mayor-council system, in which  voters elect both a mayor and members of the city council
    • in a weak mayor-council system, the mayor acts in a ceremonial capacity and does not have more power or authority than do individual members of the city council
    • in a strong mayor-council system, the major acts as an executive officer and can veto actions of the council, appoint department heads, and/or develop a municipal budget
  • council-manager system, in which the city council appoints a professional city manager to carry out the administrative functions of municipal government.  In council-manager systems, voters may either elect both the mayor and members of the city council or elect members of the city council, who then appoint a mayor

Direct Link: Local Government That Works: The Council-Manager Form of Government

General Law Cities

General law cities are the default organization for Texas cities.  Most Texas cities are general law cities.  General law cities operate under Dillon’s rule – their exact form of government, ordinance powers, and other aspects of city government are specified in the Texas Local Government Code, and they “are not authorized to perform any act or organize themselves in any fashion not expressly allowed by state law” (Blodgett, n.d. ).  Because of this, general law cities have limited powers.

There are three different forms of general law cities: type A general law cities, type B general law cities, and type C general law cities.

Type A General Law Cities

Type A general law cities operate under a city council whose size is determined by whether the city is divided into wards.  If there are no wards, the council consists of 5 council members and a mayor.  If the city is divided into wards, the city council consists of two council members per ward and a mayor.  The mayor only votes when there is a tie.

Type B General Law Cities

Type B general law cities operate under a board of aldermen, which consists of five aldermen and a mayor, all of whom are elected at large.  State constitutional and statutory law is unclear as to whether the mayor in Type B general law cities can vote.

Type C General Law Cities

Type C general law cities operate under a commission, which consists of a major and two commissioners, all of whom are elected at large.

Home Rule Cities

A general law city with a population of at least 5,000 may petition the state of Texas to become a home rule city.  Once a city has been granted home rule status, it maintains this status, even if its population falls below 5,000.

As their name implies, home rule cities operate under home rule – they are granted greater freedom in their structure and functions than general law cities.  “Generally, home rule municipalities are authorized to take any actions necessary to effectuate their governance and structure, as long as those powers are not specifically restricted in the Texas Constitution or by statute” (Texas Senate Research Center, 2014).  Home rule cities also have greater annexation powers than general law cities.

Home rule cities are governed by a city charter, or plan of government that details the structure and function of the city government.  In the city charter, a home rule city will identify how it will be structured (i.e., whether it will use a mayor-council system or a council-manager system).  Most home rule cities in Texas use a council-manager form of government.

Home rule cities may choose from four election systems to select council members:

  • at-large elections, in which candidates compete for city council seats without any reference to specific seats or districts, and voters may vote for as many candidates as there are seats on the council
  • at-large by place elections, which are similar to at-large elections, but with candidates declaring which seat they are running for
  • single-member districts, in which a city is divided into several election districts equal to the number of seats on the city council; each district then elects one member, with voters in each district casting a single vote for their most preferred candidate
  • cumulative voting systems, which are similar to at-large elections, but voters can give all their votes to a single candidate or spread them across candidates

County Government in Texas: The Basics

County governments serve a smaller area than states and a larger area than cities.  Article 9 of the Texas Constitution of 1876 grants the Texas Legislature the power to create counties, subject to limitations relating to geographic size.  Today, Texas has a total of 254 counties – more counties than any other state.

Texas counties operate under Dillon’s rule.  Texas counties are considered extensions of state government: their structure is defined by the statutory law, and they may only exercise the powers that have been specifically granted to them by the state of Texas.  As such, Texas counties use a one-size-fits-all approach to local governing authority.

Commissioner’s Court

County governments in the United States usually use one of three basic structures:

  • commission system, in which an elected commission serves as the governing body of the county
  • council-administrator system, in which an elected council appoints an administrator to oversee the daily operation of county government
  • council-elected executive system, in which voters elect both the members of the council and the executive

In Texas, we use a commission system: county government is led by a commissioner’s court, which consists of four county commissioners, each of whom represents one of four geographic districts within the county, and the county constitutional court judge.  The commissioner’s court acts as a legislative body and an executive body.

Legislative Functions

  1. Limited authority to pass ordinances that govern the county
  2. May determine the types and rates of taxes to fund county government
  3. Pass the annual county budget

Executive Functions

  1. Administer state and federal funds for local government use (this relates to fiscal federalism)
  2. Oversee the various county departments and agencies
  3. Hold final responsibility for the conduct of elections in the county

County Commissioners

County commissioners are chosen using single-member district plurality elections, in which voters in each district cast one vote for their most preferred candidate, and whichever candidate wins the most votes wins the election.  Note that “most” is not the same thing as “majority” (50% + 1 vote).  To uphold the principle of “one person, one vote”, these commissioners’ districts are redistricted every ten years, following an election.

Each county commissioner is responsible for running the county government in his or her district. County commissioners do not have to work collectively but may act solely in the interests of their precincts; however, in some counties, commissioners agree to pool resources and make decisions collectively in the interest of the whole county.

County Constitutional Court Judge

The constitutional county court judge is elected by the county in an at-large election.

The county constitutional court judge serves as the presiding officer of the commissioner’s court, certifies elections, and appoints temporary commissioners when a commissioner resigns before the end of an elected term.  In smaller counties, the judge for the county constitutional court also performs judicial duties.

Other Key County Officers

In addition to a commissioner’s court, most Texas counties also have an auditor, who oversees county finances; a tax assessor, who collects county taxes and user fees; a county clerk, who maintains county records and, in some counties, oversees elections; justices of the peace, who acts as judicial officers for minor criminal and civil cases; constables, who act as judicial officers for minor criminal and civil cases and assists the justice of the peace in his or her duties; a sheriff, who oversees county law enforcement; and a county attorney, who represents the county in legal activities and offers legal advice to county government.

Functions of County Governments

Early county governments in Texas were given responsibility for performing several functions on behalf of the state, including:

  • operating justice of the peace courts, county constitutional courts, county statutory courts, statutory probate courts, and district courts
  • maintaining vital records, including marriage licenses, birth certificates, death certificates, and property deeds
  • collecting funds for state government, including property tax and motor vehicle registration fees
  • conducting elections
  • road construction and maintenance

As Texas’s population increased throughout the 20th century, “county operations expanded to include such additional programs as health and social welfare, solid-waste management, and housing and community development” (Smith, County Organization, n.d.).

Texas counties are granted limited authority to set property tax rates and may employ the power of eminent domain, or the ability to expropriate private property for public use with the payment of compensation.

County Finances and Operations

Day-to-day county operations are funded primarily by a small portion of property taxes collected by that county.  Because of this, some counties have significantly more revenue and can provide significantly more services than other counties.

County government may choose to contract with private businesses to provide basic services to county residents either through privatization, in which a service is transferred from public to private ownership, resulting in residents working with private entities to receive these services, or contract outsourcing, in which the county enters into a contract with a private entity and agrees to pay the private entity in exchange for the delivery of a service.

Citizens within counties may create special districts to provide additional services that are not provided by the county government.

Counties and cities may also enter into interlocal agreements to share services.  We see this occur frequently with property tax collections, with counties collecting property taxes and fees on behalf of county government, municipal government, and special districts.

Local Governing Authority: Dillon’s Rule vs. Home Rule

There are two different legal theories concerning the governing authority of local governments: Dillon’s rule and the Cooley Doctrine (more commonly referred to as the home rule doctrine).  States may apply only Dillon’s rule or home rule to local governments, or they may apply a combination of Dillon’s rule and home rule.  Local governments in most states operate exclusively under Dillon’s rule or a combination of Dillon’s rule and home rule.  Texas local government operates under a combination of Dillon’s rule and home rule.

Direct Link: Home Rule

Dillon’s Rule: State Preemption & Narrow Local Authority

“Municipal corporations owe their origin to, and derive their powers and rights wholly from, the legislature. It breathes into them the breath of life, without which they cannot exist. As it creates, so may it destroy. If it may destroy, it may abridge and control. ”  – John Forrest Dillon in Clinton v. Center Rapids and the Missouri River Railroad, 1868

According to Dillon’s rule, the state government has authority and supremacy over its respective local governments, which are considered extensions of state government.  Local governments, as extensions of state government, must be structured per state requirements and can only provide those services that the state authorizes them to provide.  “Dillon’s Rule states that if there is a reasonable doubt whether a power has been conferred to a local government, then the power has not been conferred” (National League of Cities, 2016).  Because local governments exist at the pleasure of the state, the state can step in and dissolve them, reorganize them, or take them over.  Furthermore, because local governments are essentially extensions of state government, states are held accountable for the actions taken by their respective local governments.

Dillon’s rule resulted from concerns about local corruption and fiscal irresponsibility.  Dillon’s rule is often viewed as consistent with the principles of federalism outlined in the U.S. Constitution, including a limited federal government and relatively strong states.  “The Founders designed the federal government to be dependent on the states, while the states could stand on their own” (Russell & Bostrom, 2016).  Dillon’s rule extends this dependence on the states to the local level.  As such, federal courts have often ruled in support of this doctrine of governing authority of local governments.

Home Rule: Broad Local Authority

“. . . local government is [a] matter of absolute right; and the state cannot take it away.”  –  Thomas M. Cooley in People v. Hurlbut, 1871

Under the home rule doctrine, local governments have local autonomy and an inherent right to self-government.  Home-rule provisions allow local governments flexibility in addressing the needs of their citizens, without requiring specific delegations of power from the state.  Local governments operating under home rule have some discretion to make decisions about their structure, enact local laws, and make decisions relating to taxation without state interference.  The extent of a local government’s discretion is bound by a state’s constitutional or statutory laws and is often spelled out within a local charter.

During the late 1800s and 1900s, states began to pass legislation and/or include constitutional provisions allowing for home rule in local governments in response to the inability of local governments to respond to increasingly complex problems.

Comparing Dillon’s Rule & Home Rule

Dillon’s rule and home rule are contrasting theories; the advantages of home rule can be seen as offsetting the disadvantages of Dillon’s rule, and vice versa.

Dillon’s Rule

  1. Allows for uniform taxation, environmental regulation, and land use, which benefits businesses
  2. Reduces arbitrary risks that can be taken by local governments
  3. Prevents cities from straying too far from legitimate authority as recognized by the U.S. Constitution
  4. Reduces local corruption

Home Rule

  1. Gives government the ability to make decisions based on local needs, rather than using a one-size-fits-all approach
  2. Provides local control and freedom to self-govern, which may empower citizens
  3. Allows local governments to address financial difficulties by developing new revenue streams
  4. Frees up the state legislature to focus on statewide issues