Home Rule Charters

By: Terrell Blodgett

Type: General Entry

Published: October 1, 1995

Updated: October 31, 2019

The history of Texas municipalities as corporate entities began with the establishment of the Republic of Texas in 1836. Under Spanish and Mexican rule, municipality applied to not only a local settlement but also a broad area beyond. With the birth of the republic, the municipality became the county and the urban regions began to be incorporated, first by the Texas Congress and, after 1845, by the state legislature. The early congressional and special legislative acts were both articles of incorporation and charters, but, all were specifically enacted by the central body-"home rule" was not known. The charter granted by the Congress in 1837 to San Augustine, however, provided that the board of aldermen could pass any ordinance for the benefit of its inhabitants as long as it did not conflict with the laws or constitution of the Republic. Similarly, in 1846 the legislature granted a special charter to New Braunfels, subject to ratification by the local voters at a special election. But the Congress and later the legislature were very inconsistent. As late as 1911-only a year before passage of the home-rule amendment-the city of Terrell was granted a special legislative charter in which its citizens were given no say. On the same day, March 20, the legislature enacted four other special legislative charters that were to become effective only upon ratification by the citizens of each community.

Through the last half of the nineteenth century and into the twentieth century, the state continued to enact special legislative charters. Finally, in the early part of the twentieth century, the legislature realized that its time in Austin was being increasingly occupied by writing these charters. The growth of the cities in Texas was outstripping the legislature's ability to deal with local matters. The time to act had arrived. Other states had already granted home rule; Missouri was the first to do so, in 1875. Texas had struggled through an attempt to make special legislative charters work and had also tried to formulate general laws that would apply to both large and small cities. Neither effort was successful. A constitutional amendment was passed in 1912 and followed in 1913 by the necessary enabling legislation. The amendment provides that any city with more than 5,000 population may by vote of its citizens adopt a home-rule charter. The charter may not contain any provision that is inconsistent with the state constitution or statutes, a restriction that still leaves these cities with more "home rule" than the cities of any other state in the nation, according to a report by the Advisory Commission on Intergovernmental Relations, a federal research body.

A home rule charter may provide for establishment of any of the three types of city government; may specify the number of members of the governing body; may allow annexation by the governing body of land adjacent to the city with or without the approval of the residents to be annexed; may set a maximum property tax rate of $2.50, compared to a maximum of $1.50 per $100 valuation for a general-law city; and may authorize other functions and responsibilities, provided they are not specifically prohibited by the state constitution or laws. Only nineteen of the 309 Texas cities of more than 5,000 population have not adopted a home-rule charter. Of the 290 charters in existence in May 1994, 251 called for the council-manager form of government, 39 for the mayor-council form, and none for the commission form, which was initiated in Galveston in 1901.

The legislature, generally in the interest of statewide uniformity and efficiency, has set some limits on home rule. For example, most city elections can only be held on a date designated in the Texas Election Code. Similarly, many details of conducting an election have been prescribed by the state. The legislature has also put some limits on annexation of land. A city must, for example, present a service plan at the time of a proposed annexation, setting forth how it intends to provide city services and facilities to the newly annexed residents. Nevertheless, urban experts generally consider that home rule in Texas is effective and that the decentralization of authority from Austin has been and remains an excellent example of local initiative and responsibility.

Terrell Blodgett, Texas Home Rule Charters (Austin: Texas Municipal League, 1994). John P. Keith, City and County Home Rule in Texas (Austin: Institute of Public Affairs, University of Texas, 1951). Richard H. Kraemer and Charldean Newell, Texas Politics, 5th ed. (Minneapolis: West, 1993). Dick Smith, The Development of Local Government in Texas (Ph.D. dissertation, Harvard University, 1938).

The following, adapted from the Chicago Manual of Style, 15th edition, is the preferred citation for this entry.

Terrell Blodgett, “Home Rule Charters,” Handbook of Texas Online, accessed August 15, 2022, https://www.tshaonline.org/handbook/entries/home-rule-charters.

Published by the Texas State Historical Association.

October 1, 1995
October 31, 2019