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Federalism: State and Local Governments

The fifty states are quite diverse in size, population, climate, economy, history, and interests. The fifty state governments often differ from one another, too. Because they often approach political, social, or economic questions differently, the states have been called "laboratories of democracy". However, they do share certain basic structures. The individual states all have republican forms of government with a senate and a house. (There is one exception, Nebraska, which has only one legislative body of 49 "senators"). All have executive branches headed by state governors and independent court systems. Each state has also its own constitution. But all must respect the federal laws and not make laws that interfere with those of the other states (e.g., someone who is divorced under the laws of one state is legally divorced in all). Likewise, cities and local authorities must make their laws and regulations so that they fit their own state's constitution.

The Constitution limits the federal government to specific powers, but modern judicial interpretations of the Constitution have expanded federal responsibilities. All others automatically belong to the states and to the local communities. This has meant that there has always been a battle between federal and state's rights. The traditional American distrust of a too powerful central government has kept the battle fairly even over the years. The states and local communities in the US have rights that in other countries generally belong to the central government.

All education at any level, for example, is the concern of the states. The local communities have the real control at the public school level. They control administration of the schools. They elect the school board officials, and their local community taxes largely support the schools. Each individual school system* therefore hires and fires and pays its own teachers. It sets its own policies within broad state guidelines. Similarly, there is no national police force, the FBI influence being limited to a very few federal crimes, such as kidnapping. Each state has its own state police and its own criminal laws. The same is true with, for example, marriage and divorce laws, driving laws and licenses, drinking laws, and voting procedures. In turn, each city has its own police force that it hires, trains, controls, and organizes. Neither the President nor the governor of a state has direct power over it. By the way, police departments of counties are often called "sheriffs departments". Sheriffs are usually elected, but state and city police officials are not.

There are many other areas which are also the concern of cities, towns, and villages. Among these are opening and closing hours for stores, street and road repair, or architectural laws and other regulations. Also, one local community might decide that a certain magazine is pornographic and forbid its sale, or local school board might determine that a certain novel should not be in their school library. (A court, however, may later tell the community or school board that they have unfairly attempted to exercise censorship.) But another village, a few miles down the road, might accept both. The same is true of films.

Most states and some cities have their own income taxes. Many cities and counties also have their own laws saying who may and may not own a gun. Many airports, some of them international, are owned and controlled by cities or counties and have their own airport police. Finally, a great many of the most hotly debated questions, which in other countries are decided at the national level, are in America settled by the individual states and communities. Among these are, for example, laws about drug use, capital punishment, abortion, and homosexuality.

A connecting thread that runs all the way through governments in the US is the " accountability" of politicians, officials, agencies, and governmental groups. This means that information and records on crimes, fires, marriages and divorces, court cases, property taxes, etc. are public information. It means, for example, that when a small town needs to build a school or buy a new police car, how much it will cost (and which company offered what at what cost) will be in the local newspaper. In some cities, meetings of the city council are carried live on the radio. As a rule, politicians in the US at any level pay considerable attention to public opinion. Ordinary citizens participate actively and directly in decisions that concern them. In some states, such as California, in fact, citizens can petition to have questions (i.e., "propositions") put on the ballot in state elections. If the proposition is approved by the voters, it then becomes a law. This "grass roots" character of American democracy can also be seen in New England town meetings or at the public hearings of local school boards.

Adding this up, America has an enormous variety in its governmental bodies. Its system tries to satisfy the needs and wishes of people at the local level, while at the same time the Constitution guarantees basic rights to anyone, anywhere in America. This has been very important, for instance, to the Civil Rights Movement and its struggle to secure equal rights for all Americans, regardless of race, place of residence, or state voting laws. Therefore, although the states control their own elections as well as the registration procedures for national elections, they cannot make laws that would go against an individual's constitutional rights.

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