The Basics of American Government 3E

Chapter 13: State and Local Government

Read or download the textbook here.


by Ross C. Alexander

Seattle, WA in 2007. By I, Cacophony [CC BY-SA 3.0 (].There are over 87,000 (U.S. Census Bureau) governments in the United States—one federal government, 50 state governments, and tens of thousands of local governments (cities, townships, counties, special districts, etc.), yet we often overlook these vital governmental entities that impact our lives on a daily basis. In addition to exploring the basic composition, administration, and functioning of state and local government, this chapter will explain how individuals can become more involved and engaged in the public policy decisions of their communities. Then, this chapter will address the various funding strategies that states, counties, and cities have had to devise and employ to deliver services in the current economic crisis, many of which are innovative, non-traditional, and driven by necessity.

City Hall in Atlanta, GA. By Atlantacitizen at en.wikipedia [Public domain], from Wikimedia Commons.


Chapter 13: State and Local Government

I. Introduction to state and local governments
A. State and local governments have major impact on the daily lives of citizens.
B. Most government exchanges and interactions are with agents of state and local government like public school teachers, police officers, social workers, county commissioners, city councilors, city and county managers, etc.
C. Elected and appointed officials at the state and local level make policy decisions in the areas of education, transportation, taxation, land use, growth and development, health care, etc.
1. Citizens clamor for more government services delivered more efficiently and effectively without tax increases
2. State and local governments must devise strategies to generate revenue and meet citizen demands
D. Voter turnout for state and local elections is less than turnout in national level
1. Traditionally, the lower the level of government, the lower the rate of voter turnout
2. It is not uncommon for voter turnout for primary elections at the local level to be in the single digits
II. State Governments
A. Constitutional Authority
1. Reserved Powers Clause
a. 10th Amendment - "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."
b. State governments were created as co-equal entities by the framers of the Constitution and are therefore constitutionally-legitimate
B. Concurrent Powers - powers shared by the federal government and state governments
1. Collecting taxes, establishing courts, borrowing money, making and enforcing laws, and chartering banks and corporations
III. State Constitutions
A. States are constitutionally-legitimate entities and each state, therefore, has its own constitution
1. Many state constitutions existed prior to the writing of the U.S. Constitution in 1787 and were models and guides for the delegates to the Constitutional Convention.
2. Virginia, South Carolina, and New Hampshire
B. The U.S. Constitution is brief (roughly 7,400 words including the Bill of Rights) in comparison to most state constitutions, which are longer and more detailed, averaging roughly 26,000 words.
1. Alabama’s constitution adopted in 1901 is over 300,000 words
2. State constitutions are much less flexible as a result
C. Because state constitutions are longer, more detailed, amended more frequently, and less flexible, they can provide additional protections for citizens, something which has led to judicial evolution at the state level, influencing the actions of lawmakers and the decisions of judges
IV. How Governemnt Institutions Function in the States
A. Governors
1. The traditional powers of governors, those usually listed explicitly in state constitutions, are similar to the powers of the president
2. Terms of length of gubernatorial terms and re-eligibility, states vary tremendously with most governors (including the Governor of Georgia) limited to two terms of four-year.
3. Traditionally possess the power to appoint officials in the Executive Branch, oversee state agencies, veto legislation, call the state legislature into general session, dispatch the national guard in times of crisis and emergency, and craft the budget, among others.
4. Governors also serve as chief of their respective parties, spokespersons and ambassadors for their states, and chief lobbyists with their state legislatures
5. Governors today are proactive policy entrepreneurs with many even possessing name recognition on a national and international scale
a. Many recent presidents and presidential candidates previously served as governor
b. Jimmy Carter, Ronald Reagan, Bill Clinton, George W. Bush
c. Demonstrates their ability to oversee state agencies, manage budgets, handle crises, and win elections on a smaller scale, yet fulfilling duties similar to that of the president
d. Gubernatorial elections can cost tens of millions of dollars, looking very much like presidential elections and are marked by extensive television advertising, usage of professional campaign advisers, and negative campaign ads
B. State Legislatures
1. The composition, functioning, and especially size of state legislatures vary tremendously across the states.
2. Terms of office
a. Most states utilize four-year terms for both the lower and upper houses of their legislatures
b. 12 states utilize two-year terms
i. All members of the General Assembly in Georgia serve two-year terms with no term limits.
c. 15 states currently have term limits
i. Legislators in these states are limited from 6 to 12 years in office, depending on the state.
3. In terms of daily functioning and policymaking, state legislatures function work primarily in committees
4. Legislators will serve on several permanent or standing committees and perhaps other ad hoc or temporary committees as well
5. Seniority rules with longer-serving members holding positions on the more prestigious committees
C. The Judiciary
1. In some states:
a. Judges are elected on partisan ballots
b. Judges are elected on non-partisan ballots
c. They appoint their judges to all levels of courts
d. There is a combination of appointments and elections (Missouri Plan)
e. Not all states refer to their highest court as the supreme court
2. The primary difference is that judges who must run for election, especially those on partisan ballots, must concern themselves with political issues and variables like those governors and legislators face, most notably fundraising.
3. Common among all the states is the amount of judicial business or cases heard by state courts in comparison with the federal court system.
4. State courts are busier, including the state courts of last resort, which hear many more cases than the U.S. Supreme Court.
V. Local Governments
A. Not constitutionally based
B. Dillon’s Rule
1. Local governments are creations of the state, subject to the authority and oversight of individual states, not the federal government
C. As counties, townships, cities, and other units of local government have expanded, they have become responsible for delivering more services to more people
D. They function almost as a third level or layer in the system of American federalism, even if they lack authority
VI. Counties
A. Subdivisions of states delivering state services at the local level including, but not limited to record-keeping, licensing, transportation, law enforcement, etc.
B. Counties exist in 48 states
1. Called Boroughs in Alaska and Parishes in Louisiana
2. Texas has most with 254, Hawaii and Delaware only have 3
3. Georgia has 159 Counties
4. Range from 26 square miles to 26,000 square miles
C. Urban/Rural distinction
1. People living in rural areas rely more so on county government and the services it provides because those services are not provided or duplicated by other governments, most notably cities
D. County Commission
1. Historically, served as the legislative, policymaking entity for the county as well as the executive entity
a. each elected commissioner was responsible for overseeing a particular policy area
b. few counties still utilize this arrangement today due to the complex nature of modern county government and the potential for corruption that occurred
E. Commissioner-Administrator or Commission-Manager System
1. The elected commission chooses a professional manager or administrator to oversee the day-to-day operations of the county
a. The commission fulfills its traditional legislative, policymaking function
b. The manager or administrator is responsible for budget oversight, personnel administration, strategic planning, and other daily government functions
c. Most commonly-used system of county governance today because of its relative efficiency and professionalism
F. Commission-Executive System
1. County executive is a separately-elected official functioning similarly to a county manager or administrator
2. The advantage to the commission-executive system is true separation of powers
G. Sole Commissioner
1. The commissioner is a single person who functions as both the legislative and executive body for the county
2. Found only in a few counties in Georgia
VII. Cities
A. "Incorporated" or established by receiving a charter from the state legislature
1. Over 19,000 municipal (city) governments in the United States
2. Vary tremendously in size and population
3. Over 60% of all Americans live in cities
B. A city charter is the basic document that defines the organization, powers, functions and essential procedures of the city government
1. Comparable to the State Constitution or US Constitution
2. The most important single legal document of any city
C. Three Types
1. Special or Specific Charters
2. General or Classified Charters
3. Home Rule Charters
a. Cities can make minor changes to their charters without receiving approval from the state legislature
b. All cities in Georgia possess home rule
D. City Governance System
1. Mayor-Council System
a. Mayor functions as the chief executive and the city council functions as the legislative body
b. "Strong Mayor" versus "Weak Mayor" classification
i. Strong: the executive possesses greater authority with regard to budgetary and personnel decisions
ii. Atlanta has a Strong Mayor classification
2. Commission System
a. The commission functions as both the legislative and executive entity
3. Council-Administrator
a. Where the elected city council functions as the legislative policymaking body but selects a professional manager or administrator to oversee the day-to-day operation of the city
4. Town Meeting
a. The entire electorate is allowed to participate in an annual meeting, the primary purpose of which is to pass the budget for the upcoming fiscal year
b. Policy administration is undertaken by select men, chosen by the electorate
VIII. Other Local Governments
A. Numerous other local government systems exist
B. Councils of Governments
1. Voluntary associations of communities in metropolitan areas
a. Exist to address issues and concerns that may affect several jurisdictions in a given region, such as land use, traffic and congestion, transportation
b. Little formal power but can be effective for strategic, long-term planning
i. Example: Minneapolis-St. Paul area
C. School districts
1. Unit of local government that make policy for schools in a given jurisdiction
2. Governed by the school board, which functions as the legislative, policy-making body
3. The school board chooses a superintendent to oversee the daily operation of the district

A Map of the 89,004 Governments in the United States

Map of the United States with the 89,004 governments mapped. (from Publication CB12-151, Brian Lavin:

From The United States Census Bureau. Publication CB12-151, Brian Lavin:


Test Your Knowledge

Need to study the concepts of local governments? Check your understandings using the flashcards below!

City charter


For Further Reading

Please see Chapter 13 References on pages 391-394 of the textbook for primary sources and readings.

Walker County votes to return government to board of commissioners by Tyler Jett.

Georgia General Assembly From the New Georgia Encyclopedia.

State of Georgia Legislative Process: Overview From the New Georgia Encyclopedia.
by Edwin L. Jackson, University of Georgia

Policy on Indian Sovereignty and Government-to-Governement Relations with Indian Tribes from the Department of Justice.
Indian (Native American) tribes are sovereign, yet dependent, domestic nations within the United States and its territories. This unique status requires federal policies to protect indigenous peoples and maintain the governments’ relationships.