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Federalism In Focus: The Powers And Features Of State Governments

From the creation of our country’s first national bank to the modern controversy over Obamacare, disputes between state and Federal power have defined American politics. Each US state has a sophisticated, organized government that possesses broad powers, but must contend with Federal influence. No understanding of American governance is complete without detailed knowledge of the structure and power of state governments. 

State Government Structure

The structure of most state governments closely resembles that of the Federal government. Governments are divided into three branches, namely:

  • The Executive Branch- The chief executive of a state is the governor, who is elected by statewide popular vote. Like the President of the United States, governors have the power to sign or veto legislation and appoint officials for executive offices. The lieutenant governor is the governor’s equivalent of a vice president. Unlike with the vice president and the president, however, many states have separate elections for governor and lieutenant governor, and the two officials are often from separate parties. Many states also have elections for certain executive officials.
  • The Legislative Branch- Almost all states have two chambers: an upper house, usually called the “State Senate,” and a lower house, which may be called the “State Assembly,” the “House of Representatives,” or the “House of Delegates.” The only exception is Nebraska, which has a single legislative house called the “Senate.” Nebraska also has the only nonpartisan legislature in the country.
  • The Judicial Branch- Each state has a variety of courts to rule on the constitutionality of state laws and legal disputes contained within that state. They also have a higher court for appeals of lower court rulings, usually called the supreme court; such courts have the final say over issues outside of Federal jurisdiction. Unlike their Federal counterparts, state judges are often elected, and can sometimes have a party affiliation.

Though states share the basic structure of the Federal government, the specific powers of each branch of government differ from state to state. For example, some states limit their legislatures’ powers by requiring a supermajority to raise taxes; others allow taxes to be raised by a simple majority vote. State constitutions may change more frequently than the Federal constitution, especially in states where one party is dominant.

State Strength

Under the 10th Amendment to the United States Constitution, any powers that the Federal government does not have belong to the states or to the people. This gives states a myriad of powers and responsibilities, including:

  • Building Roads- States build, maintain, and regulate roads and highways to facilitate transportation across their territories.
  • Providing Education- States build public schools, hire teachers, and regulate school curricula. 
  • Raising Money- States can levy sales taxes, income taxes, and a variety of other measures to raise revenue. They also have the right to borrow money.
  • Regulation- State governments can regulate property ownership, industrial standards, wildlife conservation, and other activities that affect their citizens and territory.
  • Distributing Electors- States have the power to decide how they distribute their electoral votes during presidential elections. At present, Maine and Nebraska give two votes to the statewide winner and all other votes to the winners of each of their congressional districts. All other states give their votes to the candidate who wins a plurality of the statewide election.
  • Protection- States hire troopers and other security officials to protect their citizens.
  • Welfare- States can provide social programs, minimum wages, and other economic protections for their citizens. They also have the power to opt in or out of certain Federal programs; the Affordable Care Act, for example, allows states to decide whether to expand their Medicaid programs. Certain states, including Hawaii, Massachusetts, and Connecticut, have instituted universal healthcare programs.

Although state governments have broad powers over their citizens, they are subject to a number of limitations. They are not allowed to declare war, issue their own currencies, sign treaties with foreign countries, or place tariffs on international or interstate trade. Each state must also respect the right of other states, notably by recognizing their public acts and records, granting their citizens full rights and privileges, and cooperating with their police forces during criminal investigations. Multiple states cannot sign agreements with each other that affect the Federal government unless they have congressional approval to do so. State policies that violate these limitations may be ruled unconstitutional by the United States Supreme Court.

Federal Funding Power

In addition to formal constitutional limits on state power, the Federal government can also influence state activities by:

  • Offering Incentives- The Federal government can offer states funding or other benefits for participating in certain programs. The Affordable Care Act, for example, rewards states that expand Medicaid by covering the vast majority of the cost of expansion.
  • Denying Funding- In addition to offering the states money for complying with its initiatives, the Federal government can also take existing funding away from non-compliant states. The National Minimum Drinking Age Act of 1984, for instance, specifies that states that set their drinking age below 21 will lose eight percent of their Federal highway funding.

The Federal government’s power to restrict or expand state funding comes with a catch: Congress cannot set unfunded mandates. In other words, if the Federal government requires states to adopt new policies, it must provide them with the money to do so. This produces some degree of equilibrium between state and national power. States may not be able to pass up congressional funding, but Congress must be willing to offer funding whenever it tries to regulate the states.


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