State Government

[This page closely follows Vote-Smart.Org’s page on state government, but includes information from Wikipedia. After reading this, you might be interested in looking at your own state’s official website to learn about the services it specifically offers you.]

The following is a general background on how state government works. Please note that each state operates according to its own constitution.

 States have certain limits on their power. For instance, they cannot:

  • Create their own currency

  • Impose taxes on imports or exports

  • Form alliances with foreign governments

  • Make a declaration of war

But, according to the Constitution’s Tenth Amendment, all other powers not held by the federal government automatically go to the state. This may seem quite broad and vague, but here are some common examples of powers that the state takes responsibility for:

  • Creating laws regarding the ownership of property

  • The education of citizens

  • Implementation of welfare and other benefits programs and distribution of aid

  • Local police protection

  • Maintaining a justice system

  • Setting up local governments such as counties and municipalities

  • Maintaining state highways

  • Regulation of industry within the state

  • Creating taxes and fees to fund the state’s activities

In many areas, states share administrative responsibility with local and federal governments. Highways are an example. Most states classify roads into primary, secondary, and local levels. This system determines whether the state, county, or local governments must pay for and maintain the road.



States must also accept mandates from the federal government. Mandates are required actions. For example, the federal government may require states to reduce air pollution, provide certain services for the handicapped, or require certain public health actions. The federal government is required to fund these mandates through grants to the states.

States themselves can issue mandates to local governments within the state. For example, the state can set certain education standards for all school districts.


State Constitutions

Each state has its own constitution. These state constitutions function in a very similar manner to the U.S. Constitution — it contains a preamble, bill of rights, articles that lay out the powers as separated between the executive, legislative, and judicial branches, as well as the framework that will be used to set up the state’s local governments. Just as in the case of the U.S. Constitution, all state constitutions can also be amended.


The Legislature

All states (except Nebraska) have a two-house legislature.

The Senate’s membership can range from 21 (Delaware) to 67 (Minnesota) with terms usually lasting four years.

The House of Representatives (sometimes called the General Assembly or House of Delegates) usually have memberships ranging from 40 (Alaska and Nevada) to 400 (New Hampshire) and their term-limits are usually two years.


Legislatures generally:

  • Enact laws

  • Represent the needs of their citizens

  • Share the responsibility of making a budget with Governor

  • Confirm nominations of state officials

  • As on the federal level, the House begins impeachment proceedings while the Senate conducts the trial

In 2012, salaries for legislators range from nothing (New Mexico) to $95,291 (California) per year. New Mexico legislators and most others get fairly generous daily allowances for expenses.

Their structure is very analogous to the U.S. Senate and House of Representatives. Just as the Vice President heads the U.S. Senate, the Lieutenant Governor presides over the state Senate, but the majority party leader is usually more in control. The state House elects a Speaker as leader just as it does in the U.S. House.


Citizen Legislation

In many states, citizens can directly perform legislative functions. This usually begins with a petition with many signatures. After that, the issue is put on the ballot for a general vote. There are three forms of direct legislative actions:

  1. Initiatives – Through direct votes, citizens can bypass the legislature and pass laws or amend the state constitution.  Check this Wikipedia page to see if your state allows initiatives and/or referendums.

  1. Referendum – Citizens approve of statutes or constitutional changes proposed by the legislature through a direct vote.

  1. Recall – In 19 states, citizens can remove state elected officials from office. (Alaska, Arizona, California, Colorado, Georgia, Idaho, Illinois, Kansas, Louisiana, Michigan, Minnesota, Montana, Nevada, New Jersey, North Dakota, Oregon, Rhode Island, Wisconsin and Washington State.) In 29 states some local jurisdictions allow recall elections.


The Governor and the Executive Branch of State Government

The Governor is a state’s chief executive. A governor serves either two or four year per term. Most states have term limits on the governor. (To find out about your state, go here.)

Governors have three kinds of powers:  They can make appointments to state agencies; they draw up budgets; and they can veto legislation. In 43 states the governor can issue line-item vetoes. In other words, they can delete sections of a bill, but allow the rest to pass into law. (The states that don’t allow the governor line-item veto power are Indiana, Maryland, Nevada, New Hampshire, North Carolina, Rhode Island, and Vermont.)


Elected Positions Within the Executive Branch

Unlike state governments, in the federal government the president and vice-president are the only elected positions in the executive branch. State governments have additional elected positions, besides the governor:

  • Lieutenant Governor – Similar to the vice president to the president, the Lieutenant Governor succeeds the governor in office and presides over the state senate

  • Secretary of State – Takes care of public records and documents

  • Attorney General – Represents the state in all court cases

  • Auditor – Makes sure that the public money is being spent legally

  • Treasurer – Invests and pays out funds held by the state

  • And more, depending on the state.



Like the Federal Government, state governments need money to function. States have different mechanisms to raise revenue:

  • State taxes

  • Services and fees (toll roads, lotteries, license plates, etc.)

  • Insurance Trust Revenue (unemployment compensation, some retirement)

  • State-run liquor stores (in 17 states)

  • Getting loans. Like the federal government, states can run deficits.

State and local governments spend more money on education than anything else. Elementary and Secondary schools receive about 8% from the Federal Government, 50% from the State government, and 42% from local governments.


The State Judicial System

The state court system is independent of the federal court system, although there are sometimes overlapping jurisdiction in some cases. Most cases are held in state court. About 90% of people in prison got there by way of state courts. Similarly, most civil cases (non-criminal cases) are heard in state courts.  

The state court system is similar to the federal court system, since there are three rungs: major cases start in a trial court, usually at the county courthouse. If appealed, the case goes to a state court of appeals, and if appealed again, a state supreme court usually decides the case. But states also have courts of inferior jurisdiction for minor cases. These would include magistrates, traffic courts, and municipal courts.


State Government Terms to Know

Amendatory or conditional veto

This is the power by the governor to send a bill back to the legislature with suggested changes. This is akin to the President’s ability to veto a bill passed by the U.S. congress



The idea of casework is taking care of constituents’ problems or “errand-running” for particular citizens done by state senate or house members.


Express powers

Powers that are directly specified in the Constitution are referred to as express powers.


Formula grants

These are grants given to people or groups that meets certain guidelines. These would be like grants for school lunches, airports, and highways.


Implied powers

Implied powers are those that are not explicitly stated in the constitution, but they are implied through the “necessary and proper” clause in Article I, Section 8 of the U.S. Constitution. This is often a point of contention between federal power and state power – remember that according to the Constitution’s Tenth Amendment, all other powers not held by the federal government automatically go to the state. It is sometimes hard to know which issues fall to the state and are under the explicit jurisdiction of the federal government.


Inherent powers

These are powers that the national government naturally has to represent the country in relations with other countries. This is the foundation behind the state governments restriction from imposing taxes on imports or exports, forming alliances with foreign governments, and making a declaration of war.


Line-item veto

A line-item veto is the power of a governor to veto particular items in bills concerning the state’s budget.



Mandates are requirements set by the national government to force states to perform a particular action.


Presiding officer

This is a person who oversees the activities of a legislative house. They can have a major or minor leadership role in the house, depending on the state.


Project grants

Like formula grants but not related to education or infrastructure directly, these grants given to those who make special requests for aid.


Progressive tax

This is a tax where people with higher incomes pay a higher percentage of taxable income in state taxes.


Sunset legislation

These are a type of legislation that has a specific expiration or renewal date. They can be used in several situations:

  • To persuade legislators that does not support a particular measure. When the legislation lasts limited length of time, it is “on the fence” and legislators are more likely to vote for it because of its “temporary” nature.

  • Issues that change rapidly (e.g., technology-related issues), and thus it pertaining to these issues must be updated periodically.



A supermajority is a vote that requires a quantity greater than the majority, usually 2/3 or 3/4, to pass.


Term limit

This is a limit on the number of consecutive terms an elected official, such as a governor or state senator, can serve.


Unfunded mandate

An unfunded mandate is when the federal government requires a state to follow and does not provide the states with the funds to carry them out.




Leave a Reply

Your email address will not be published. Required fields are marked *