State and Local Government

The American government is a federal one, which means that authority and jurisdiction are divided among national, state, and local governments. This division and decentralization causes the system to be often unwieldy, slow-moving, and redundant. However, the federal system’s value lies in the fact that in such a large and diverse nation, local governing bodies can represent this diversity. In 1997 the United States had 50 state, 3,043 county, 19,372 municipal, and 16,629 township governments.

Government in America is constructed in such a way that state laws may differ depending on local circumstance—consider the speed limits on local roads, which are often different from state to state. Smaller subdivisions are also flexible enough to respond to some unique situation or element of their population. For example, in heavily Amish areas of Pennsylvania, local school districts have allowed the Amish to establish their own elementary schools. Although these institutions are funded solely by private money, unlike other private schools they violate various state laws regarding such things as teacher certification, curriculum, and length of the school year.

Responsibilities of State and Local Government

State and local governments exercise important functions in the United States. They plan and pay for most roads, run public schools, provide water, organize police and fire services, establish zoning regulations, license professions, and arrange elections for their citizens. These are functions that directly affect Americans every day and in every part of their lives.

State and local governments have never been totally separate political entities, because they cooperate in services ranging from welfare to transportation, and because they serve the same residents. Nonetheless, the state has the final decision over local functions. While states are part of the larger entity of a federal system, local governments are creatures of the state. The state government can abolish a local government, merge it with other entities, or give it additional authority. Local authority comes from specific state constitutional provisions or from acts of the state legislatures.

Authority of State and Local Government

The Constitution of the United States establishes the relationship between the state governments and Congress. It specifically grants certain powers to Congress, such as declaring war and raising armies, and it prohibits the states from activities that could undermine the national government, such as making treaties, coining money, imposing tariffs, or making war. The Constitution then gives the states power over everything else. In situations where both the states and Congress claim jurisdiction, the federal courts decide which claim is more valid. Although the national government and the states are supposedly balanced and equal, in the 20th century the courts have tended to favor policies that give more power to the national government at the expense of the states.

Local governments began to gain importance in the early 19th century. At that time, many state governments were new and relatively weak. In addition, poor roads, primitive means of transportation and communication, and lack of funds made it difficult for the states to adequately take care of growing rural populations. County governments thus became an important source of information, administration, and community unity. In many rural towns, the county courthouse was—and often still is—the most prominent public building.

There are two types of local governments in the United States today. Some are territorial, with jurisdiction extending over a certain geographic area. Some county governments and local school districts are examples of such territorial units. The second type are corporate governments, which are based on charters granted to cities, towns, or villages by the state government. City charters are like constitutions, although their jurisdiction is on a local level. The state authorizes and approves these charters, which must conform to state law.

Some corporate governments have received various degrees of what is called home rule, which enables them to change their structures and pass laws with which the state government cannot interfere. However, changes and laws made under home rule cannot conflict with state law. In most instances, state legislatures allow cities to adapt state laws to their circumstances, but cities are ultimately bound by the state authority that created them. As a result, states delegate power to local bodies. Their relationship is much more hierarchical than the relationship between state governments and the federal government.

Changing Balance

In the 1780s, under the Articles of Confederation, the states had a good deal of control over their own internal affairs, and many Americans wanted the states to maintain that control. Others wanted a strong national government, with limited powers for the states. To compromise, the Founders created a federal system, which balanced power between the state and federal governments. In the first half of the 19th century, the states maintained their power, and the national government was much less active. Most U.S. citizens felt their strongest allegiance to their state, not to the national government. Before the Civil War, Americans said “the United States are,” a grammatical construction that stressed the primacy of the individual states. After the war, they began to say, “the United States is,their changed grammar revealing their changed politics.

However, the relationship between the national government and the state and local governments has continued to change. A profound change came as a result of President Roosevelt’s New Deal programs in the 1930s. For the first time, the national government became involved in areas, related mainly to the economy, that previously had been the responsibility of the states. As a result, a cooperative form of federalism emerged, in which the national government took a more active role in policies that had been under the jurisdiction of the states.

Often the national government gave grants to state and local governments to implement federal programs, such as establishing agricultural extension services or hiring more police. In the 1960s federal grants to the states were extended to cover areas such as housing, health, and education. Since the enactment of the 1972 General Revenue Sharing Act, state and local governments have received a portion of the federal income taxes paid by their citizens. Between 1965 and 1970, the amount of federal grants in constant dollars more than doubled from $10 billion to $24 billion; by 1995 it had reached $169 billion. All these grants were to be used by the states to pursue goals defined by the national government. Grants have grown so much that many local governments have come to depend on federal money. Some cities—Buffalo, New York, and Oklahoma City, Oklahoma, for example—receive as much as one-third of their budgets from federal aid.

However, some local officials have become concerned that federal grants do not necessarily reflect the needs of different localities. A city may need funds to improve its parks, but the federal grant may specify money to build libraries. In addition, the federal government may give support for needed institutions such as nursing homes but then may require states to accept various regulations. Moreover, many rural areas receive little of this federal money, because they lack the personnel to apply for grants.

Current Trends and Issues

The current relationship of state and local governments with the national government is not simply the story of Washington, D.C., encroaching on small-town America. In fact, though the federal government has installed minimum requirements and standards in areas such as civil rights and pollution control, active state and local governments have broadened the scope of their activities and the size of their budgets.

Many state and local governments showed renewed energy in the 1990s. Some organized charter schools, which enable citizens to start alternative schools that are publicly funded. Others installed voucher systems that permit parents using a state-issued voucher to send their children to private schools. States have set limits on how long elected officials can serve in an office. They have also established limits on property taxes and have developed different forms of job training for welfare recipients. Some hope to fulfill an expectation that they are “laboratories for democracy”: closer to the people than the federal government and small enough to experiment with new and innovative practices.

In addition to expanding their budgets, state and local governments have also increased the size of their bureaucracies and their regulatory power over citizens. Based on the Tenth Amendment, which reserves powers not delegated to the federal government for the states, recent Supreme Court decisions have limited the federal government’s authority. For example, the federal government is unable to ask local law enforcement agencies to do minor administrative jobs, such as performing background checks on gun purchasers. Such limitations will lead to increased independence of state and local governments.

In the late 20th century, federalism resembled a marbled cake. The national, state, and local governments share functions and financing. This cooperation and sharing often made the roles of individual units difficult to distinguish. This differed from the traditional arrangement of the past, in which federal, state, and local governments functioned as a layer cake—the local governments on the bottom, then the state, and finally the federal government.