I had previously written about Los Alamos County’s unique status as an H class, incorporated county. (LA Daily Post, June 21, 2016). I now address our County’s status as a home rule, incorporated county.
As an incorporated county, we benefitfrom the flexibility afforded home rule municipalities. Under common law, cities are limited in their authorities, and are allowed to exercise only those authorities grantedto them by the state legislature. Under this governing model, the state exercises significant control over municipal governments. Home rule turns the relationship between state and local government around allowing municipalities and Los Alamos, as an incorporated county, greater latitude in self-governance.
About 60 years ago, the New Mexico Constitution was amended to allow municipalities to choose to be home rule. After voter approval of a home rule charter, a city or incorporated county can exercise all legislative functions not expressly denied by general law or its charter. This amendment underscored the intent of this provision: “to provide for maximum local self-government. A liberal construction shall be given to the powers of municipalities.” (NM Constitution, Article X, Section 6).Since the advent of home rule in New Mexico, several cities have adopted home rule charters. For example, Los Alamos, Santa Fe and Albuquerque are home rule.
In determining whether a particular municipal action is within its home rule authority, the courts look to whether the particular action is denied to cities under general state law. Sometimes it is not always clear and the New Mexico courts have been called upon to reconcile state law and local ordinances. In general the courts have shown deference to local home rule municipalities. For example, home rule supports a city’s right to set a different number of city commissioners than fixed in state law; to charge utility rates that yield a reasonable profit; and to prohibit the drilling of domestic wells within its boundaries. More recently, home rule authority has been interpreted to allow home rule municipalities to implement minimum wage ordinances (also known as Living Wage laws) that set wages higher than the floors set by state and federal law.
Perhaps because cities are becoming more proactive in exercising their home rule authorities, there is increasing pressure at the state level to include provisions in bills denying localities the ability to regulate certain activities or to act on certain issues. For example, in the last legislative session, the state legislature passed bills that explicitly denied municipalities the ability to regulate transportation networks (“UBER”). A failed House bill would have barred municipalities from mandating a higher minimum wage than the state’s minimum wage.
Home rule gives Los Alamos County and its citizens’ maximum ability to set policies best suited to its unique circumstances. For this reason, it is important that we consistently act to protect our standing as a home rule incorporated county and work to minimize state legislative efforts to curtail our ability to act under this important state constitutional.