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State Government

Last Updated: 2006

American state governments have primary responsibility for education, economic development, transportation infrastructure, some environmental regulation, and the implementation of income support programs. State agencies also administer many federal programs. State budgets account for about 30 percent of all government expenditures, and that percentage has been growing slowly since the 1960’s.


In the 1780’s, severe economic competition among the states and unstable relations with the United Kingdom and France led to the replacement of the Articles of Confederation with the Constitution. The Constitution took foreign relations, the military, and interstate economic affairs firmly away from states and placed them squarely in the hands of the federal government. The Constitution does not specify what responsibilities states should have, however, except that they must have a “republican form of government” (Article IV, Section 4). States’ responsibilities and rights are also mentioned ambiguously in the Tenth Amendment—any power not mentioned in the Constitution is “reserved” to the states.

This ambiguity led to repeated clashes between states and the federal government over the appropriate division of economic and political powers. In 1814, northeastern states met at the Hartford Convention, in part, to demand less federal interference in trade. In 1832, South Carolina threatened to nullify a federal tariff that was seen to be economically harmful to the state’s cotton industry. Neither was successful. The Civil War ended the last serious challenges to federal supremacy over state government.

As transportation and communications improved in the nineteenth century, state governments increasingly had trouble regulating businesses. The greatest blow to state economic regulation came with the 1937 case, National Labor Relations Board v. Jones and Laughlin Steel Corporation, in which the U.S. Supreme Court interpreted “interstate trade” to include activities inside state borders. This (with later, similar decisions) vastly expanded the federal government’s regulatory reach into the states.

State government authority was weakest during the 1960’s. At that time, “states’ rights” was generally associated with states’ segregationist policies and racial discrimination in general. Many policy makers thought that states were unwilling to take on powerful local and rural interests. As a result, many saw the federal government as the best way to change government responsibilities.

Since that time, states have been resurgent. In the 1990’s, for example, Congress gave states significant authority over federal low-income programs by allowing them to set eligibility requirements and assistance schedules for Temporary Assistance for Needy Families (TANF).

Also, the U.S. Supreme Court decided in several cases that the federal government had placed too much burden on state governments (for example, Adarand Constructors v. Peña 1995 and Printz v. United States 1997).


The drafters of many state constitutions modeled their own government on the federal example, although time and local experience have led to widely differing powers and relationships between state governors, legislatures, and courts.

In the past, governors’ terms have varied from one year to six, although by the end of the twentieth century all states except New Hampshire and Vermont allowed four-year terms to the governor, with reelection possibilities. All governors except North Carolina’s have the power to veto legislation. Some may only veto entire bills; others may veto “line items” from budgets. Some may send legislation back to legislators with specific recommendations for changes. Some governors may call the legislature into extra sessions to consider specific pieces of legislation.

The governor is also the head of the state’s bureaucracy. Many states’ bureaucracies grew in response to federal education, low-income, or medical programs. As the federal government has reduced its role in these areas, state agencies often have continued to press for these services.

Until the 1960’s, most states had short legislative sessions (sometimes only a few weeks) with part-time legislators. Since that time, an influx of urban and suburban representatives and new responsibilities for administering federal programs has prompted state legislatures to increase their capacity for governing.

Many state legislatures meet year-round, have nonpartisan research staff, and operate independent budget offices. Legislators are likely to be full-time. The shift to less rural membership came after Baker v. Carr (1962) required states, for the first time, to apportion their legislatures based on population rather than geography. This change brought a significantly more urban agenda to statehouses.

Like the U.S. Congress, all states except Nebraska have a bicameral legislature with an upper house of 20 to 61 members (usually the “senate”) and a lower house (often the “house of representatives” or “assembly”) with more members—usually between 70 and 150 but as many as 400, as in New Hampshire—and shorter terms.

State courts hear nearly 99 percent of U.S. litigation, placing state courts in one of the most influential positions in American politics. State courts settle arguments from $10 traffic tickets to multibillion dollar suits against multi-state corporations. While the U.S. Supreme Court may hear 100 to 200 cases a year, all forms of state courts hear around 100 million.

State courts are the final authority on state constitutions, and the courts may guarantee greater civil rights than those granted by federal law. Also, the U.S. Supreme Court often leaves considerable leeway in its decisions for lawmakers and state judges. When the state is home to multi-state firms, as New York and Delaware are for many financial institutions, decisions made by state court systems have national influence.

State judges are selected in three ways. The first is the “Missouri plan”—so named because Missouri was first to adopt it, in 1940—in which a panel of lawyers and others draws up a list of possible candidates for the governor to appoint. After a short term, the judge faces a “retainer election” whereby people may vote to keep the judge. This plan is most common for states’ highest courts. The second common method is an election, often nonpartisan. Few judges lose elections; most leave office by retirement. Finally, in other states, the governor or legislature (in Virginia) appoints state justices.

SEE ALSO: Articles of ConfederationBaker v. CarrCivil WarNational Labor Relations Board v. Jones and Laughlin Steel CorporationPrintz v. United StatesTemporary Assistance for Needy Families ActTenth Amendment


Book of the States (Lexington, KY: Council of State Government, annual); Sarah McCally Morehouse and Malcolm E. Jewell, State Politics, Parties, and Policy, 2nd ed. (Lanham, MD: Rowman & Littlefield, 2003); and Ronald E. Weber and Paul Brace, eds., American State and Local Politics (New York: Chatham House Publishers, 1999).