How are US state governments structured?
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How are US state governments structured?

November 8, 2017

An election for state and local government offices was held in the U.S. on November 7. In our analysis, “Five misleading implications in the Virginia election coverage,” we noted the faulty reasoning in assuming state elections will necessarily be an indicator of next year’s midterm election results. In order to put this week’s elections in context, here we explain how state governments are structured, and how they relate to the federal government.

Overall structure

Each state has its own constitution and governmental hierarchy. State governments are structured in the same way as the federal government, with executive, legislative and judicial branches. The number of elected positions in each branch may vary by state and population. Rules regarding minimum age requirements for elected positions, citizenship and residency requirements, or term limits may also vary by state.

Generally, states must abide by federal law. Although federal law supercedes state law, states may enact laws that differ or are counter to federal laws, executive orders or other federal guidelines. In such cases, the federal judiciary may take action against the state.

State executive branch

The state governor is elected by the state’s voters to lead the executive branch. Depending on the state, people may also elect other members of the executive branch, such as the lieutenant governor, attorney general, secretary of state, and auditors and commissioners. The state executive branch typically works independently from the federal executive branch. However, the governor may request that the president declare a federal emergency to allow the state to receive federal funding.

  • Governor: As the chief executive officer of the state, governors are responsible for implementing state laws and overseeing state executive branch operations. Governors can promote legislative proposals, enact executive orders and veto state legislation. Most state governors can appoint judges. All states except Oregon allow for the impeachment of governors.
  • Lieutenant Governor: This is the second-highest executive office in a state and the lieutenant governor serves as governor if the governor is temporarily absent or removed from office. The position’s other powers may vary by state. In Hawaii and New Jersey, the lieutenant governor also serves as the secretary of state.
  • Secretary of State (also called Secretary of the Commonwealth): Most states have this position in their executive branch; Alaska, Hawaii and Utah do not. Duties vary by state, but may include recordkeeping, the monitoring of elections and registering businesses.
  • Attorney General: All 50 states have this position. The Attorney General serves as the chief legal advisor and chief law enforcement officer for the state government, and represents the state in legal matters.
  • Treasurer: This position handles state finances. Some states may refer to this position as “controller.” In other states, the treasurer may handle certain duties of the comptroller or auditor (see definitions below).
  • Auditor: In 48 states, the person in this position manages accounting and financial functions of the state. The state auditor can also audit other state departments and investigate fraud allegations. In some states this position may be considered part of the legislative branch rather than the executive branch.
  • Superintendent: Other names for this position include superintendent of education, superintendent of public instruction or chief school administrator. This person oversees the state’s elementary and secondary schools.
  • Insurance Commissioner: All 50 states have an insurance commissioner that is either appointed or elected. The commissioner regulates state insurance and may include consumer protection duties.
  • Comptroller: Also sometimes referred to as “controller,” the position may include duties similar to those of the treasurer, such as managing the budget.
  • Agriculture Commissioner: This person manages the state’s agricultural department and enforces state agricultural regulations.
  • Natural Resource Commissioner: The commissioner, in general, maintains and regulates the state’s natural resources, such as state parks, forests and recreation areas.
  • Labor Commissioner: This person typically makes sure that state labor and workforce laws aren’t being violated.
  • Public Service Commissioner: The public service commissioner regulates utility services such as energy, telecommunications and water.

State legislative branch

Locally elected representatives make up a state’s legislative branch. Legislative duties include creating state legislation (from matters raised by the governor or by members of the state congress), approving the state’s budget and issuing articles of impeachment. Except for Nebraska, all states have an upper chamber (the Senate) and a lower chamber (the House of Representatives). Senate legislators typically serve longer terms than House legislators. The lower chamber may also be called the House of Delegates or General Assembly. Legislators are elected from districts throughout the state. The number of legislators elected to each chamber varies by state.

Note: People who serve in a state’s Senate and House are separate from those who represent the state in the U.S. Congress. In the U.S. Senate, for example, each state has two senators representing the state, which equals a total of 100 U.S. senators in Congress. The number of U.S. House Representatives per state varies by population. The U.S. House currently has a maximum of 435 representatives.

State judicial branch

The state judicial branch is the state’s court system. The judicial branch is led by the state supreme court, which hears appeals from lower-level state courts. Since state legislators can determine a state’s court structure, the number of courts and the number of elected judges may vary by state. A state supreme court ruling is typically binding, unless the ruling is appealed to the U.S. Supreme Court.

Local governments

Local governments can also vary by state. Some states may have local representation for counties, boroughs, parishes, municipalities, cities, towns, villages or townships. They are usually responsible for regulating parks services, police and fire departments, housing services, emergency medical services, municipal courts, transportation services (such as buses and road maintenance) and waste removal.

Read our full analysis on the election: Five misleading implications in the Virginia election coverage