The following is a general background on how state government works. Please note that each state operates according to its own constitution.
The U.S. government is federal in form. The states and national government share powers, which are wholly derived from the Constitution.
From the Constitution, the national government derives
Article I, Section 10 of the Constitution of the United States puts limits on the powers of the states. States cannot form alliances with foreign governments, declare war, coin money, or impose duties on imports or exports.
The Tenth Amendment declares, "The powers not delegated to the United States by the Constitution, nor prohibited by it to the states, are reserved to the states respectively, or to the people." In other words, states have all powers not granted to the federal government by the Constitution.
These powers have taken many different forms. States must take responsibility for areas such as:
In many areas, states have a large role but also share administrative responsibility with local and federal governments. Highways, for example, are divided amongst the three different levels. Most states classify roads into primary, secondary, and local levels. This system determines whether the state, county, or local governments, respectively, must pay for and maintain roads. Many states have departments of transportation, which oversee and administer intrastate transportation. U.S. highways and the interstate system are administered by the national government through the U.S. Department of Transportation.
States must also administer mandates set by the federal government. Generally these mandates contain rules which the states wouldn't normally carry out. For example, the federal government may require states to reduce air pollution, provide services for the handicapped, or require that public transportation must meet certain safety standards. The federal government is prohibited by law from setting unfunded mandates. In other words, the federal government must provide funding for programs it mandates.
The federal government pays for its mandates through grants-in-aid. The government distributes categorical grants to be used for specific programs. In 1995, federal grant money totaled $229 billion. Block grants give the states access to large sums of money with few specific limitations. The state must only meet the federal goals and standards. The national government can give the states either formula grants or project grants (most commonly issued).
Mandates can also pass from the state to local levels. For example, the state can set certain education standards that the local school districts must abide by. Or, states could set rules calling for specific administration of local landfills.
Each state has its own constitution which it uses as the basis for laws. All state constitutions must abide by the framework set up under the national Constitution.
Therefore, in basic structure state constitutions much resemble the U.S. Constitution. They contain a preamble, a bill of rights, articles that describe separation of powers between the executive, legislative and judicial branches, and a framework for setting up local governments.
State constitutions also tend to be significantly more lengthy than the U.S. Constitution. State constitutions can contain as many as 174,000 words (Alabama), and have as many as 513 amendments attached (also Alabama). Much of this length is devoted to issues or areas of interest that are outdated. Oklahoma's constitution, for example, contains provisions that describe the correct temperature to test kerosene and oil. California has sections that describe everything that may be deemed tax-exempt, including specific organizations and fruit and nut trees under four years of age.
All state constitutions provide for a means of amendment. The process is usually initiated when the legislature proposes the amendment by a majority or supermajority vote, after which the people approve the amendment through a majority vote. Amendments can also be proposed by a constitutional convention or, in some states, through an initiative petition.
All states have a bicameral, or two-house legislature, except Nebraska, which has a unicameral, or single, house. Legislative salaries range from nothing (Kentucky and Montana) to $57,500 (New York) per year. In states where there is no official salary, Legislators are often paid on a per diem basis (i.e. Rhode Island Legislators earn $5 per day).
Like the national legislature, each house in a state legislature has a presiding officer. The Lieutenant Governor presides over the Senate, but the majority leader assumes most of the leadership roles. The house elects a Speaker who serves as its leader. Leaders of each house are responsible for recognizing speakers in debate, referring bills to committee, and presiding over deliberations.
States grant legislatures a variety of functions:
Legislators don't wield the only legislative power in state government. In many states, the people can perform legislative functions directly. The ways by which these methods can be implicated vary, but they usually require a certain number of signatures on a petition. After that, the issue is put on the ballot for a general vote.
The Governor is a state's chief executive. A governor can serve either a two or four year term. Thirty-seven states have term limits on the governor.
The president and vice-president are the only elected executive positions within the federal government. State governments, however, often have other positions executive elected separately from the governor. Some examples include:
Like the Federal government, state and local governments also have debts. In 2010, total state and local government debt totaled $2.39 trillion. The per capita debt towards state and local governments across the country is about $7600. Debts range from about $2.3 billion in Wyoming to over $269 billion in New York.
In 2011, 43 states, the District of Columbia, Puerto Rico, and the U.S. Virgin Islands have adopted some sort of gambling, most in the form of instant-winner or "drawing" lotteries. About 1 percent of state revenue comes from gambling. Lotteries can be very profitable for the state. Generally 50% of the proceeds go to winners, 10% to administration costs, and 40% to the state's general fund. Profits from lotteries have been used towards funding education, economic development, and environmental programs. Net income from state lotteries totaled $16.9 billion in 2006. (source)
Like the Federal government, state governments also have debts. In 1994, total state government debt had reached $410 billion. The per capita debt towards state governments across the country is about $1500. Debts range from about $700 million in Wyoming to over $65 billion in New York.
One of the largest issue areas left to the discretion of the states is education. The United States' public education system is administered mostly on the state and local levels. Elementary and Secondary schools receive funding from all the different levels of government: about 8% from the Federal Government, 50% from the State government, and 42% from local governments. State and local governments put more money toward education than any other cost. There are approximately 15,000 school districts around the country, each governed by its own school board. The people of the district vote the members of the school board into office. Generally about 15-30% of the local electorate participate in a typical school board election. Some roles of a school board:
The Superintendent is the head administrator within a district. His or her responsibilities include:
The chief state school official is appointed by the governor and, along with other state education positions, has many responsibilities:
amendatory or conditional veto - the power to send a bill back to the legislature with suggested changes.
casework - taking care of constituents' problems; "errand-running" for particular individuals.
express powers - powers which are directly specified in the Constitution.
federal - a system in which the states and national government share responsibilities. When people talk about the federal government, they generally mean the national government, although the term often refers to the division of powers between the state and national governments.
formula grants - grants given to anyone who meets certain guidelines (grants such as those for school lunches, airports or highways).
implied powers - powers which are not explicitly stated in the constitution, but which are implied through the "necessary and proper" clause in Article I, Section 8.
inherent powers - powers which the national government naturally has to represent the country in relations with other countries.
line-item veto - the power of a governor to veto particular lines (items) in budget appropriations bills.
mandate - a requirement set by the national government to force states to perform a particular action.
presiding officer - one person who oversees the activities of a legislative house. A presiding officer can have either a major or minor leadership role in his or her house.
project grants - grants given to those who make special requests for aid.
progressive tax - a tax where people with higher incomes pay a higher percentage of taxable income in state taxes.
sunset legislation - legislation that has a specific expiration or renewal date. Sunset legislation can be used in several situations.
supermajority - a vote which takes a quantity greater than the majority, usually 2/3 or 3/4, to pass.
term limit - a limit on the number of consecutive terms an elected official can serve.
unfunded mandate - when the federal government sets regulations for the states to follow and does not provide the states with funds to carry them out.
Burns, James et. al. State and Local Politics: Government by the People. Englewood Cliffs, NJ: Prentice-Hall, Inc. 1984.
Peterson, Steven and Rasmussen, Thomas. State and Local Politics. New York: McGraw-Hill, Inc. 1990.
Ross, Michael. State and Local Politics and Policy: Change and Reform. Englewood Cliffs, NJ: Prentice-Hall, Inc. 1987.
Saffell, David. State Politics. Reading, MA: Addison-Wesley Publishing Company. 1984.
U.S. Bureau of the Census. Statistical Abstract of the United States: 1996 (116th edition.) Washington, DC. 1996.
Compiled by James Berry.