State & Local Government
Most Americans have more daily contact with their state and local governments than
with the federal government. Police departments, libraries, and schools —
not to mention driver's licenses and parking tickets — usually fall under
the oversight of state and local governments. Each state has its own written
constitution, and these documents are often far more elaborate than their federal
counterpart. The Alabama Constitution, for example, contains 310,296 words
— more than 40 times as many as the U.S. Constitution.
Under the Tenth Amendment to the U.S. Constitution, all powers not granted to the
federal government are reserved for the states and the people. All state governments
are modeled after the federal government and consist of three branches: executive,
legislative, and judicial. The U.S. Constitution mandates that all states
uphold a "republican form" of government, although the three-branch structure
is not required.
In every state, the executive branch is headed by a governor who is directly elected
by the people. In most states, the other leaders in the executive branch are
also directly elected, including the lieutenant governor, the attorney general,
the secretary of state, and auditors and commissioners. States reserve the
right to organize in any way, so they often vary greatly with regard to executive
structure. No two state executive organizations are identical.
All 50 states have legislatures made up of elected representatives, who consider
matters brought forth by the governor or introduced by its members to create legislation
that becomes law. The legislature also approves a state's budget and initiates
tax legislation and articles of impeachment. The latter is part of a system
of checks and balances among the three branches of government that mirrors the federal
system and prevents any branch from abusing its power.
Except for one state, Nebraska, all states have a bicameral legislature made up
of two chambers: a smaller upper house and a larger lower house. Together
the two chambers make state laws and fulfill other governing responsibilities. (Nebraska
is the lone state that has just one chamber in its legislature.) The smaller
upper chamber is always called the Senate, and its members generally serve longer
terms, usually four years. The larger lower chamber is most often called the
House of Representatives, but some states call it the Assembly or the House of Delegates.
Its members usually serve shorter terms, often two years.
State judicial branches are usually led by the state supreme court, which hears
appeals from lower-level state courts. Court structures and judicial appointments/elections
are determined either by legislation or the state constitution. The Supreme
Court focuses on correcting errors made in lower courts and therefore holds no trials.
Rulings made in state supreme courts are normally binding; however, when questions
are raised regarding consistency with the U.S. Constitution, matters may be appealed
directly to the United States Supreme Court.
Local governments generally include two tiers: counties, also known as boroughs
in Alaska and parishes in Louisiana, and municipalities, or cities/towns.
In some states, counties are divided into townships. Municipalities can be
structured in many ways, as defined by state constitutions, and are called, variously,
townships, villages, boroughs, cities, or towns. Various kinds of districts
also provide functions in local government outside county or municipal boundaries,
such as school districts or fire protection districts.
Municipal governments — those defined as cities, towns, boroughs (except in
Alaska), villages, and townships — are generally organized around a population
center and in most cases correspond to the geographical designations used by the
United States Census Bureau for reporting of housing and population statistics.
Municipalities vary greatly in size, from the millions of residents of New York
City and Los Angeles to the 287 people who live in Jenkins, Minnesota.
Municipalities generally take responsibility for parks and recreation services,
police and fire departments, housing services, emergency medical services, municipal
courts, transportation services (including public transportation), and public works
(streets, sewers, snow removal, signage, and so forth).
Whereas the federal government and state governments share power in countless ways,
a local government must be granted power by the state. In general, mayors, city
councils, and other governing bodies are directly elected by the people.