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II. States in the Federal System
III. Variety and Inequality
IV. State Political Structures
A. State Constitutions
C. State Legislatures
D. State Judicial Systems
V. Local Governments
A. County Government
B. Municipal Government
The study of state and local government is essentially the study of all that is not national government in the United States—the 50 states and the more than 88,000 other subnational units of government from counties to small towns, fire districts, school districts, and water districts. Typically, the study of cities—communities of larger than 50,000 people—is considered a separate realm of inquiry. The distinction among these layers of government has been confounded in recent years with the emergence of the metropolis—such as the so-called BosWash region that encompasses the Northeast corridor from Boston to the nation’s capital and includes all the cities, suburbs, and rural areas in between.
This research paper examines where state and local government sit in the American national political system and then focuses on the internal workings of each level, looking at executives, legislatures, judicial systems, political participation, and policy making.
II. States in the Federal System
State governments, and the municipalities within them, preceded the creation of the national government. A drive through the northeastern United States will reveal cities and towns founded in the 1600s and 1700s, long before the 1787 writing of the founding document of the nation in which they sit. Thirteen states were viable political entities at the time of the American Revolution. The states had their own constitutions, forms of government, political processes, political cultures, and political identities. Virginians, New Yorkers, and Pennsylvanians existed long before Americans.
The preexistence of states had a profound impact on the design of the Constitution and continues to shape the operation of American politics today. The president is elected by electoral votes, which are allocated to states. This unique electoral institution determines presidential campaign strategy and, some argue, has an impact on presidential policy making as the president responds to the states that are vote rich. Both chambers of Congress are organized geographically, with Senators originally chosen by state legislators (until the Seventeenth Amendment in 1913, which ushered in direct election) and House members elected from districts within states. The shape of these districts is determined by state legislatures, creating one of the most politically charged elements of American politics, as state legislatures use their line-drawing powers to the benefit of the party that controls that legislature. The Constitution itself can be amended only with the approval of three fifths of the state legislatures, making constitutional change by this method rare indeed.
Clearly, state governments matter a great deal in American politics. The impact of structural elements outlined is enhanced by the constitutional allocation of power between the state and federal governments. Articles I, II, and III of the Constitution allocate certain powers to the national level of government. Many powers and many areas of authority are not mentioned in the provisions and have been, over the course of 220 years of constitutional history, contested terrain between state power and national power. The Tenth Amendment to the Constitution, often called the states-rights amendment, asserts that all powers not granted to the national government or denied to the states “are reserved to the States respectively, or to the people” (U.S. Constitution, 1787, Amendment Ten). This reserved-powers clause has been used by state governments with considerable success to fend off national incursion into state sovereignty. In 1997, for example, in Printz v. U.S., the Supreme Court ruled unconstitutional a provision of the Brady Bill gun control bill that required local police to conduct background checks for handgun purchases. The Court saw this provision as a violation of the federal division of powers. Also in 1997, a federal district court affirmed the right of the voters of California when they passed Proposition 209 banning affirmative action by public institutions in the state. The proposition is in direct contraction to federal policy but was allowed to stand by the Court. Not all attempts to assert state sovereignty succeed. In 1985, in Garcia v. San Antonio MTA, the Court added to a long line of decisions, beginning with the New Deal, that permitted federal regulation of the conditions of labor for state and local employees, including minimum wage, maximum hours, and the right to unionize.
In the early 21st century, the boundaries between state and federal authority remain unclear. In the area of medical marijuana, for example, at least 14 states have laws that permit the cultivation, distribution, and use of marijuana for medicinal purposes, and several have decriminalized marijuana altogether. However, marijuana remains illegal at the federal level, and there have been numerous incidents, notably in California, where medical marijuana dispensaries, operating in a manner consistent with state law, have been shut down by federal authorities. In the 2005 Gonzales v. Raich, the Supreme Court asserted the federal government’s power to prohibit the use of marijuana even for medicinal purposes. This particular federal–state dispute remains active as more states indicate the likelihood of relaxing marijuana laws at the state level.
States remain vibrant, vital sovereign actors in American politics. Constitutional provisions, centuries-old practice, and Supreme Court decision making will ensure that state–federal tension remains a significant dynamic in the system.
III. Variety and Inequality
One of the frequently cited benefits of an American-style federal system is the variety offered by the existence of 50 sovereign states. From the physical differences between the Alaska tundra and the Hawaiian tropics, to the cultural differences between Utah and Florida, to the economic differences between Mississippi (median household income of $37,700) and Connecticut (median household income of $70,500) and the political differences between Rhode Island (63% voted for Obama) and Wyoming (33% voted for Obama), diversity is an undeniable fact of American life. This diversity provides a number of benefits. It provides an array of opportunities and options for American citizens in terms of economic opportunity and lifestyle choices. Political scientist Daniel Elazar (1984) observed three distinct political cultures in the United States. His successor in the field, Joel Lieske, identified 10 regional subcultures (Bowman & Kearney, 2008). These allow for the prediction of quality of life, business climate, expansiveness of government programming, and other features.
Anyone traveling around the United States can observe differences in speed limits, motorcycle helmet laws, hours of operation of bars, and severity of punishment for crimes (three-strikes laws and the presence of a death penalty). These obvious differences among states are the surface manifestations of the considerable leeway that states have to determine policy agendas.
Many observers note that some of the most significant policy innovations in contemporary American history have begun as experiments at the state level. Welfare-to-work programs, universal health insurance, charter schools, and family leave policies are in this category.
As noted, however, the presence of state autonomy with regard to public policy can produce inequities among Americans that derive from the state in which they live. Federal laws such as the No Child Left Behind Act attempt to mandate a national standard for education. Federal programs such as Food Stamps and Medicaid ensure a base level of benefits to the poor regardless of geography. Even with these programs, there is considerable variation in the funding levels and quality of services from state to state.
IV. State Political Structures
A. State Constitutions
Article IV of the U.S. Constitution lays out several rules that must be followed by all states if they are to be members of the union: Each state shall give full faith and credit to the records and documents of every other state, citizens of every state shall have all the privileges and immunities granted to citizens of each state, and every state shall have a republican form of government. Article I, Section 10 prohibits states from doing certain things: coining money, entering into treaties, passing ex post facto laws, among others. Beyond these relatively few requirements, states are free to design their own forms of government.
Although there is some variety from one state to the next in constitutional structures and processes, most states mimic the national level of government, with three branches, checks and balances, regularly scheduled elections, substate units of government with some degree of autonomy, and some set of civil rights and liberties guaranteed to the citizens.
Beyond those basic structural similarities lie significant differences among state constitutions. Massachusetts has the oldest constitution, adopted in 1780. Georgia, on the other hand, adopted a new constitution in 1983 (Saffell & Basehart, 2001). Some constitutions are very long, like Alabama’s with over 340,000 words, some are rather short, like New Hampshire’s with 9,200 words, although none as short as the U.S. Constitution with 8,700 words (Bowman & Kearney, 2008). Most state constitutions are relatively easy to amend, including by popular initiative. In 17 states, the constitution can be amended by majority vote of the legislature. In 18 states, the constitution can be amended by majority vote of the electorate. California’s Proposition 209, noted previously, is one example of this. Thirty-one states have constitutional amendments restricting the definition of marriage to a union between one man and one woman. The result is a proliferation of provisions attached to many state constitutions. In 2002, a provision was added to the Florida constitution that prohibits “cruel and unusual confinement of pigs during pregnancy” (Bowman & Kearney, 2008, p. 59). Seven constitutions have bills of rights that make mention of dueling (Saffell & Basehart, 2001).
One of the most controversial recent uses of the state constitution amendment process has been in the area of gay marriage. In the United States, demands for equal treatment for all citizens regardless of race, gender, religion, age, and disability have been made and resolved, for the most part, at both the state and national levels. Such demands for equality in the matter of sexual orientation are still contested terrain in U.S. politics. Family law is typically the province of state governments, and so the battle about the legality of same-sex marriages is being fought in that arena. Since state courts, state attorneys general, and local town clerks have frequently found no basis in law for denying a marriage license to same-sex couples, many states have responded by defining marriage as between one man and one woman either by statute (in 12 states) or by an amendment to the state constitution (in 29 states). Virtually all of these amendments have been adopted since 2000. Most notably, in California, in November 2008, voters approved Proposition 8, which amended the state constitution to define marriage as between a man and a woman. This vote came only months after a California court had ruled same-sex marriage as constitutional in that state. So the voters changed the constitution, redefining the rights of gay Californians (Archibold & Goodnough, 2008). The ease with which many state constitutions can be amended by both legislatures and voters have resulted in some constitutions with hundreds of amendments: South Carolina with 484, California with 848, and Alabama with 1,028. The result is constitutions that are weighed down with anachronistic policy mandates; confusing, overlapping, and conflicting prohibitions; and special protections for groups that have been savvy enough to take advantage of the amendment process.
Starting in the 1960s and continuing to this day, most states have been undertaking a process of constitutional reform to address some of the flaws of these wordy, policy-laden documents. Bowman and Kearney (2008) reveal that between 1960 and 1980, every state altered its constitution to some degree, and 10 states replaced their constitutions completely. The process of reform, which is connected to similar trends in other areas of state government to be discussed in subsequent sections, continues.
The governor is the chief executive of the state, charged with the day-to-day operation of the state. Yet the aversion to executive power that suffuses the national government is present at the state level as well. In early state constitutions, governors were often limited to single terms, or even one-year terms, and had no veto power, no budgeting power, and no appointment power. In some states, the governors themselves were appointed by the legislature. As with the national government, as the states grew more complex, the need for effective executive power became clear. And throughout the 19th century, state legislatures revealed themselves to be prone to corruption, and their oversight of the budget and administration of state government became problematic. The reform movement of the Progressive Era led to some changes in the allocation of power at the state level as governors’ terms were lengthened and many were given the veto power. The first half of the 20th century was a period of little change in state government as the federal government grew rapidly and, with the New Deal, gathered much tax, spending, and programmatic power to Washington, D.C.
Throughout this period, right through the mid-1960s, the mal-apportionment of state legislatures rendered most governors powerless in the face of their legislatures. Virtually all state legislative lines were relics of earlier times, drawn before populations of immigrants and farm workers swelled the size of American cities. So by the early 1960s, state legislatures were dominated by representatives from tiny rural districts. Governors, on the other hand, were elected statewide in response to the needs of the population centers. But without legislative approval, governors were unable to push their policy agendas. In Tennessee, one Charles Baker of Memphis pointed out to the Supreme Court that his district, with its one representative, had 10 times as many people in it as neighboring rural districts. This underrepresentation of urban districts in both state legislatures and the U.S. House of Representatives was ruled a violation of the equal-protection clause of the U.S. Constitution.
The 1962 Baker v. Carr decision was crucial in the reallocation of power within state legislatures from the rural areas to the population centers and removal of legislative barriers to the governors’ ability to make policy (Weber & Brace, 1999). At the same time, changes at the federal level were pushing more decision-making authority and some money down to the state level.
Starting in the 1970s with President Nixon’s New Federalism and continuing on through Presidents Reagan, Bush, and Clinton, the so-called devolution revolution redesigned federal programs by loosening up guidelines on how federal grant money could be spent at the state level. Categorical grants in which Congress determined the shape of programs were redesigned as block grants in which governors could choose how to spend the federal dollars within loose national guidelines. Governors became important policy actors with dramatically enhanced responsibility for program design and implementation.
Again, the formal powers of a governor vary from state to state, but it is the case that the overall status and importance of the governorship has been dramatically enhanced since the founding of the American republic. The significance of the office can be seen by the number of governors who have gone on to become presidents in recent years—Carter, Reagan, Clinton, and George W. Bush—and the number of governors (four) who have been tapped to serve in the Obama administration—Vilsack of Iowa at the Department of Agriculture, Locke of Washington at the Department of Commerce, Sebelius of Kansas at the Department of Health and Human Services, and Napolitano of Arizona at the Department of Homeland Security.
Because governors are both politicians and administrators, with a wide range of policy areas as their responsibility, and are on duty in their states around the clock, they are seen by many experts as more likely to be better prepared for the presidency than are members of Congress. Most scholars agree that today’s governors are the following:
better educated, more experienced in state government and more competent than their predecessors. Never before has the strength and policy influence of the governors been surpassed. . . . The governors have displayed greater capability and vigor than ever before. (Bowman & Kearney, 2008, p. 195)
C. State Legislatures
As with governors, its is difficult to generalize about state legislatures except to say that most are part-time, all but one are bicameral, and all serve the functions of representation, legislation, and oversight of the executive branch (Bowman & Kearney, 2008). The National Council of State Legislatures has divided states into categories based on length of session. Red states have legislatures that are in session for at least 80% of the work year. Those serving in these bodies earn a salary that allows them to be full-time legislators. It is clear that larger states, with complex policy needs, fall into this category. In 2006, a California legislator earned $110,000, while a legislator serving in New Hampshire earned $200.
In terms of processes, state legislatures work much the same way that the U.S. Congress does. Members are elected from districts and must attend to the needs of their constituents. Yet they must also participate in the making of state policy by serving on committees, writing and voting on legislation, and interacting with the governor and the state bureaucracy. As with the governor, as demands put on states have increased since the 1960s, many state legislatures have become increasingly professionalized by adding staff, lengthening sessions, and raising salaries. In some states, this had led to the same kind of incumbency effects that exist at the national level as some legislators hold on to their seats for decades. In reaction to this, throughout the 1990s, voters in 15 states adopted initiatives that limited state legislatures’ terms in some ways. Term limits in the state legislatures were expected to bring in new blood, eliminate entrenched interests, and make the body more representative of minority groups in the population that had been locked out by incumbents. According to several studies, however, term limits in state legislatures have produced a slower-working institution, a stronger governor, more influential interest groups, and term-limited legislators who are less, not more, responsive to constituents. Further, there has been no measurable increase in the representation of underrepresented groups in state houses.
What is clear is that important policy decisions are made in state capitals. Political scientists must attend to the analytical and decision-making capacity of both governors and state legislatures. The challenges facing state governments are enormous since many face large deficits, job losses, crumbling infrastructure, flawed education systems, and other major policy problems. Is the capacity to address these problems present in the states? The answer to that question will be revealed in the early decades of the 21st century.
D. State Judicial Systems
State courts process 100 million cases a year, which is 99% of all the cases heard in American courts (cited in Weber & Brace, 1999). Clearly it is state courts that are the heart of the U.S. judicial system. As with governors and state legislatures, state courts have changed significantly over the past 40 years, professionalizing and reforming to enhance their efficiency and legitimacy. State courts deal with a wide range of issues that affect the daily lives of all Americans: family law, traffic law, property disputes, debt collection, and criminal law. State courts are also usually the first to look at cases that can have monumental constitutional import, from whether to allow prayer in public schools to the appropriateness of race-based admissions in state law schools to whether local governments can seize private property for economic development purposes.
As with legislatures and executives, there is considerable variability among the structures and processes of state judicial systems. Some states have multiple types of courts, some have elected judges, some have mandatory sentencing, others have three-strikes laws, and still others have considerable judicial discretion regarding the disposition of cases.
One of the major structural features that distinguish one state court system from the next is the method for selecting judges. For many years, starting with Mississippi in 1832 and continuing throughout the 19th century as new states entered the union, the judicial selection process of choice was election by the state legislature or by election of the voters. Both of these methods came under criticism during the Progressive Era as reformers voiced concern about the ability of elected judges in particular to have the qualifications, objectivity, and accountability to make sound judicial findings. In 1937, the American Bar Association introduced and endorsed the Missouri Plan, which involved a judicial nominating commission recommending judicial nominees to the governor. The governor would then appoint those recommended (should he choose to); the appointees would take office and then be ratified by the voters in a so-called retention vote at the next regularly scheduled election. Twenty-three states use some form of this method (not always including the retention vote), 22 continue to use elections, and 5 use pure gubernatorial appointment. As with the trends in constitutional, executive, and legislative reform, state judiciaries have followed a pattern of increasing professionalism and modernization (Bowman & Kearney, 2008).
One of the characteristics of state government that does not mimic federal government is the so-called long ballot, which provides for the election of numerous statewide officials, who, at the federal level, would be appointed by the executive. This feature is a reflection of the early suspicion of executive power, and despite numerous attempts at reform, it has remained an element of most state governments. So the heads of major state departments—the attorney general, the state treasurer, and the commissioner of education—are often elected by the voters and immune to gubernatorial control. Although this allows for greater responsiveness to the public, it does create opportunities for gridlock or redundancy in policy making.
State bureaucracies and their counterparts at the local level are the agencies that delivery virtually all public goods and services, from education to transportation to policing, parks, waste management, and water supplies. The precise form of this service-delivery mechanism varies significantly from state to state, with some states relying on strong county government structures to deliver most services and others relying on local governments at the point where the rubber meets the road. Some states are complex systems of elected or appointed boards and commissions to advise on or make policies, while others are not. In 2008, state governments employ about 3.8 million (down from 4.6 million people in 1992). Of these, 1.2 million work in higher education, 477,000 in corrections, and 377,000 in corrections (U.S. Census, 2009). In the last half of the 20th century, the functions of government have become more complex, and the devolution revolution has shifted responsibility for delivering services from the federal government to the states. Along with these developments has come increased attention to the need for efficiency and transparency in the delivery of state services. As with governors and legislatures, state bureaucracies have, over the course of the past several decades, undergone a wave of reform and professionalization. One of the elements of reform has been consolidation. In 1993, for example, South Carolina reduced the number of state agencies from 79 to 17 and eliminated many boards and commissions (Saffell & Basehart, 2001). Many states have adopted some form of performance budgeting, in which agencies’ budgets are tied to the quality of services delivered. Some states have looked to privatization of some services as a means of improving service delivery and saving money. And virtually all state governments have moved in significant ways into so-called e-government, eliminating much of the paperwork and waiting lines that had been the source of public frustration at such agencies as motor vehicle registries and public assistance agencies.
Each year, Governing magazine, in collaboration with the Pew Center on the States, grades the 50 states on their performance in four areas of public management: budgeting, personnel management, infrastructure, and management of information. Detailed reports on the management strengths and weaknesses of each state reveal dramatic differences in administrative efficiency, modernization, citizen satisfaction, and quality of services delivered. The three states receiving the highest overall grade (A−) in 2008 are Utah, Virginia, and Washington. The two states at the bottom are Rhode Island (C−) and New Hampshire (D+). Students of state politics and public management can find a wealth of information and much fodder for future research in these reports (Pew Center on the States, 2008).
V. Local Governments
A. County Government
There are 88,000 units of local government in the United States. Of these, 3,033 are county governments. The size and functions of counties vary dramatically from state to state. Counties employ 2 million employees nationwide and range in size from 6 square miles (Arlington County, Virginia) to 87,000 square miles (North Slope Borough, Alaska) and population from 67 residents in Loving County, Texas, to 9.5 million residents in Los Angeles County, California. In Rhode Island and Connecticut, counties exist as lines on a map but nothing else. Virginia relies on counties to deliver most educational services in the state, while New Hampshire uses county governments to deliver most public welfare services. Counties are particularly important units of government in rural areas where residents may live in areas that have not been incorporated into a city or town. For these citizens, county government is their primary contact point for all public goods and services. In keeping with the movement to reform government at the state and local levels, many states are examining their county governments with an eye to consolidation and streamlining. In California, for example, the legislature considered a proposal to consolidate the state’s 58 counties into seven regional supergovernments. The bill did not pass, but it is an indication of current thinking about the place of county governments in the United States (Bowman & Kearney, 2008).
B. Municipal Government
According to the U.S. Census (2009), in 2008, there were 19,492 municipal governments in the United States, 16,519 town governments, 13,051 school districts, and 37,381 special district governments. Combined employment in this sector was 14.2 million people. Again, the primary characteristic of municipal government is diversity. The United States Constitution was silent on the question of local governments, leaving to the states to determine how citizens would be represented and services delivered in their states. Virtually all states have some version of home rule, in which cities and towns are granted some degree of autonomy over their own affairs. There is, however, a long tradition of state interference with local affairs that has been enshrined in Dillon’s rule, expounded by Iowa judge John Dillon is 1868, which states that local governments have only those powers explicitly granted to them by the state government. Although this is contrary to the Jeffersonian principle that the most desirable form of government is that which is closest to the people, it is the guiding tenet of state–local relations to this day (Bowman & Kearney, 2008).
Municipal governments can take several forms. Larger cities in the Northeast and Midwest tend to organize according to the strong mayor–council form of government, which mimics the state and federal models. Mayors are elected citywide and are responsible for the day-to-day operation of the city. City councils are typically part-time and responsible for enacting legislation, including the budget, connecting with the residents (since the council is usually elected from wards, or districts, in the city), and exercising oversight of mayoral activities. Smaller communities often use the council–manager form of government in which the town council is elected, either at large or from districts, and is very part-time with limited powers. The council appoints the town manager, or administrator, who is a professionally trained (in the best case) public manager. He or she has authority over all town departments and is responsible for the daily operation of the town.
Most local governments also have a number of special-purpose districts or authorities. These bodies are usually governed by an elected board that oversees an appointed professional executive. Education, sewers, bridges and tunnels, fire service, ports, airports, libraries, and many other service areas can be operated by these commissions. The commissions are often formed to extract the policy area from the control of the town government for reasons of efficiency or to deliver a service that involves multiple jurisdictions. These districts have been criticized in recent years for lack of transparency and accountability and redundancy of services.
The proper way to organize municipal government and deliver local services is not a settled matter. Students of political science and public administration can find many intriguing questions in this area of inquiry. The local level is the place where citizens have the most frequent and most direct contact with their government. It is also the level where political scientists have the best access for research and where those who wish to combine theory and practice can most easily do so. Much can be learned about the dynamics of elections, the operations of bureaucracy, the nature of executive power, best and worst practices in public policy from observation, and analysis of those units of government close to where we live.
Because of the extraordinary diversity in political structures, processes, and policies from state to state and municipality to municipality, comparative analysis is easy to do and bears significant fruit for the student of government.
Although there is only one national government in the United States and that receives the lion’s share of attention from political scientists and the media, there are 50 state and approximately 88,000 local units of government. The existence of these state and local governments is enshrined in the U.S. Constitution and in American political culture. Their existence provides an impediment to effective national policy making and an opportunity for diversity and experimentation at the state and local levels. Their existence provides a multitude of arenas for public participation in politics and close-up observation of the processes and politics of governance. Students of political science can learn much about executive power from studying governors, much about legislative power from studying city councils, and much about grassroots activism from studying campaigns for mayor or the multitude of local policy initiatives that appear on ballots at election time. Recent commitments to transparency, the recent trends in e-government, and the physical proximity of the units of government provide ready access to the researcher. These so-called laboratories of democracy are also laboratories for the discipline.
- Archibold, R. C., & Goodnough, A. (2008, November 5). California voters ban gay marriage. The New York Times. https://www.nytimes.com/2008/11/06/world/americas/06iht-06ballot.17571248.html
- Bowman, A., & Kearney, R. (2008). State and local government (7th ed.). Boston: Houghton Mifflin.
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- Governing: https://www.governing.com/
- National Association of Counties: https://www.naco.org/
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