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Generally, home rule is the ability of a subset of a larger government to enact its own laws. In a federal government, member states can grant municipal home rule to city or county governments, allowing them to establish certain laws and policies which supersede broader state laws. Home rule also refers specifically to the ability of the constituent countries in the United Kingdom, including Scotland, Northern Ireland and Wales, to have a degree of autonomy in their governance. A number of other countries, including Canada and Denmark employ similar types of local primacy.
Municipal home rule is typically enacted through state legislation, and enables particular cities or counties to establish their own charters. These charters essentially contain the rules for the municipality's own government. Comparisons between the relationships of a state and its federal government and a home rule charter and its state government are tempting, but misleading. States are typically constitutionally guaranteed to exist, whereas local charters can be revoked at any time by repealing their enabling legislation.
State laws typically limit what local governments may or may not enact through municipal home rule. One thing specified in many city charters is the model of government that the city may have. Examples include a mayoral system, a city council system, or a combination of both. Zoning is another common home rule issue, as larger cities may require special zoning laws that are not appropriate for suburban or rural municipalities. In America, firearm regulation is another example, as large urban areas generally suffer from greater levels of gun violence, and choose to enact stronger regulation through their charters as a result.
Local charters are limited in that they cannot generally annul statewide taxes, or legalize something that is specifically prohibited by state law. For example, a local government would not be able to legalize something like marijuana if it is specifically outlawed at the state level. If marijuana were legal at the state level, however, a municipality would likely be able, under its charter, to institute a local surcharge in addition to any state and federal taxes.
As it relates to the constituent countries of the United Kingdom, the concept of home rule has become increasingly referred to as devolution. Devolution in this case is largely geared towards maintaining a degree of cultural and policy independence. The countries of Scotland and Wales, for instance, have their own assemblies separate from British Parliament. The Scottish Parliament in particular has the ability to legislate policy in a variety of specific areas, such as education. It has also been granted the power to levy additional taxes on Scottish citizens. In the same way that local governments could have their charters revoked, Scotland, Northern Ireland, and Wales are theoretically at the mercy of the British Parliament for their continued existence.
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