In the United States, powers that are not specifically granted to the Federal government are reserved for the States and the people. This division of power extends to State and local governments, which most Americans have more frequent contact with compared to the Federal government. State and local governments oversee various aspects of daily life, such as police departments, libraries, schools, driver’s licenses, and parking tickets. While State governments have their own written constitutions, they are often more detailed than the Federal Constitution. For instance, the Alabama Constitution contains 310,296 words, which is more than 40 times the length of the U.S. Constitution.
State governments are modeled after the Federal Government and consist of three branches: executive, legislative, and judicial. Although the U.S. Constitution mandates that all States have a “republican form” of government, the three-branch structure is not mandatory.
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The Executive Branch
Each state has an Executive Branch headed by a governor who is directly elected by the people. In most states, other leaders within the executive branch, such as the lieutenant governor, attorney general, secretary of state, auditors, and commissioners, are also directly elected. The organization of each state’s executive structure may vary based on their individual preferences.
The Legislative Branch
All 50 States have legislatures composed of elected representatives. These representatives consider matters brought forth by the governor or introduced by fellow members to create legislation that becomes law. The legislature also plays a crucial role in approving a State’s budget, initiating tax legislation, and handling articles of impeachment. This system of checks and balances prevents any branch of government from abusing its power and mirrors the Federal system.
With the exception of Nebraska, all States have a bicameral legislature consisting of two chambers: an upper house and a lower house. The upper chamber is typically called the Senate and its members serve longer terms, usually four years. The lower chamber, commonly referred to as the House of Representatives, Assembly, or House of Delegates, has members serving shorter terms, often two years. However, Nebraska stands as the only state with a unicameral legislature, composed of a single chamber.
The Judicial Branch
State judicial branches are usually led by a State supreme court, which handles appeals from lower-level State courts. The structure of these courts and the process of judicial appointments or elections are determined either by legislation or the State constitution. State supreme courts focus on correcting errors made in lower courts and do not conduct trials. While rulings made by State supreme courts are usually binding, matters that question consistency with the U.S. Constitution can be appealed directly to the United States Supreme Court.
Local governments generally consist of two tiers: counties (referred to as boroughs in Alaska and parishes in Louisiana) and municipalities (cities/towns). Some States divide counties into townships. The structure of municipalities, as defined by State constitutions, can vary and may be known as townships, villages, boroughs, cities, or towns. Additionally, there are various kinds of districts that operate outside county or municipal boundaries, such as school districts or fire protection districts.
Municipal governments typically serve population centers and align with geographical designations used by the United States Census Bureau for reporting housing and population statistics. The size of municipalities varies significantly, from large cities like New York City and Los Angeles, with millions of residents, to small towns like Jenkins, Minnesota, which may only have a few hundred residents.
Responsibilities of municipal governments include managing parks and recreation services, police and fire departments, housing services, emergency medical services, municipal courts, transportation services (including public transportation), and public works (such as streets, sewers, snow removal, and signage).
While the Federal Government and State governments share power in various ways, the authority of local governments is granted by the State. Generally, the mayors, city councils, and other governing bodies of local governments are directly elected by the people.
For more information on the different branches of government, refer to 5 WS, a comprehensive resource on various topics.