Written by: Emily Chen, Hanna Seabright, Jenny Dorsey
With guidance from: Ashtin Berry
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Table of Contents
Secretary of State
Treasurer, Comptroller, Auditor
Superintendent of Education
State Attorney General & District Attorney
How Local and State Governments Are Structured
Federal, State, and Local Laws
As covered in Understanding…U.S. Federal Government, the U.S. uses a system of governing called federalism, which means it is governed by two levels of authority: state and federal. (On the exception of U.S. territories, which all follow federal law.) The laws held by the federal government include areas like immigration, bankruptcy, social security, anti-discrimination and civil rights, patent & copyright, and federal criminal laws; these laws apply to all states and local governments.
State laws handle areas like marriage & divorce, public welfare programs, wills & estates, business contracts, real estate, personal injuries & workers compensation, and state criminal laws. These apply to all areas governed by the state. Under the 10th Amendment, all powers not expressly given to the federal government is to be held by the state. The laws shared by state and federal governments are called concurrent powers, which include powers like the power to tax, build roads, and create lower courts.
In instances where state and federal laws disagree, the supremacy clause of Article VI of the U.S. constitution establishes federal law has higher authority. However, in instances of conflict where a state law either gives more rights to its citizens than federal law, or has stricter requirements than the federal law, the state law can still legally prevail in that state.
For example, before same sex marriage was ruled by the Supreme Court to be federally legal in 2015, certain states had already legalized it under state law (which generally handles marriage & divorce); this ‘conflict’ could be upheld because this was an additional citizen right given to residents of that state. Conversely, despite the 2015 ruling recognizing same sex marriage, many states still have marriage bans on any marriages that are not explicitly between a man and woman, or have other laws that undermine same sex marriage in that state (e.g. “religious freedom” exemptions for public officials who refuse to accept same sex couples). Abortion rights follow in a similar pattern, where abortion is legally allowed on a federal level but many states have far tighter requirements on abortion (e.g. heartbeat bill) as a way to circumvent federal law.
There are also instances of explicit conflict between state and federal law, like marijuana decriminalization, where because the enforcement of the law rests in state hands (generally through police power), the state law typically becomes the de facto law because police powers are left to the state. Federally, marijuana is still classified as a Schedule I drug but various states have either decriminalized (removed penalties for possession) it or allowed it medically or recreationally. As such, growers and sellers of marijuana in those states who follow the state-sanctioned marijuana laws are not persecuted by the state and, although their activity is technically illegal by federal law, are realistically very unlikely to be persecuted by the federal government because there is simply not enough federal resources to do so.
State Government Structures
All states have their own written constitution, which sets the rules of how the state is governed through its three arms and the state bill of rights. These documents are often far longer and more comprehensive than the federal constitution, with the Alabama constitution containing 40x more words.
State governments are generally structured in the same way as the federal government, each with an executive, legislative, and judicial arm, however states are not required to maintain this structure. The executive branch is helmed by the governor, who is elected by popular vote. Other important leaders in this branch are the lieutenant governor (a similar role as the Vice President, but for the State government), the attorney general (the top legal officer of the state), and the secretary of state (exact role requirements vary, but generally oversees the official records of the state).
The legislative branch of the state is made up of elected representatives to decide on how and what legislation becomes state law. They are also able to ratify amendments to the state constitution, in charge of the state budget, tax legislation, and impeachment proceedings. 49 states (the exception being Nebraska) have the same legislative structure as the federal government, with an upper chamber (Senate) and lower chamber (House of Representatives, or Assembly). These officials typically hold short terms (2 years).
The state judicial branch is headed by the State Supreme Court (sometimes goes by different names), which presides over state appellate courts (or appeals courts) that are set by district. Much like federal appellate courts, these courts do not hold trials but hear any appeals of rulings of state trial courts. Once the state supreme court has made its decision, that decision is binding for the state; however, it can be appealed to the U.S. Supreme Court if the matters are pertinent to the U.S. Constitution.
Note that state courts hear cases of general jurisdiction, meaning they can hear any type of case unless it is prohibited by state law. The federal courts have limited jurisdiction, which means it can only hear specific types of cases; these cases generally pertain to a “federal question” (involving U.S. Constitution, Government, or federal law) or a “diversity of citizenship” (when parties involved are from different states). (You can read more about the structure of the federal court system in our Season 4 Episode 1 resources document.)
For example, a bank robbery would be tried in federal court, whereas a home robbery would be tried in state court. State courts uphold and interpret their own laws specific to that state and its own constitution. In fact, 90% of all cases in the U.S. judicial system are held at the state level (Judicial Learning Center). Broadly speaking, cases in the state and federal system do not overlap; however if a case pertains to civil liberties or rights with broader impact for the country (e.g. same sex marriage, abortion), then it may be appealed in the U.S. Supreme Court.
Local Government Structures
The state splits its geographic territory first into counties (also known as boroughs in Alaska and parishes in Louisiana) and then into municipalities (which we refer to colloquially as cities or towns, sometimes also referred to as townships, villages, boroughs). There are also districts that may offer services to multiple municipalities, such as school districts or fire departments, or simply be further subdivided areas within a municipality or county.
There are three major systems that the county government takes: commission (the most common), council-administrator, and council-elected executive.
In the commission system, an elected group of commissioners serve as the governing body within the county and perform the legislative, executive, and judicial functions -- for example, adopting a budget, setting taxes, maintaining infrastructure, passing county resolutions, and hiring staff members. Elected officials in this system vary county to county, but some typical positions are below. (You can read more about their duties in the “Roles and Responsibilities” section.)
In the council-administrator system, council members are voted in to serve a specific period of time to lead legislative functions, and the council appoints an administrator, or a county executive (sometimes also called a county mayor or county judge) to oversee the county government and establish broad policy direction and establish a vision for the county. The council members can remove the administrator at any point, so in a way this is similar to appointing a CEO to spearhead a business.
In the council-elected executive system, both council members and the administrator (or the executive) are elected by the public.
Municipal governments, also called city governments, typically take on one of two forms: the mayor-council system or the council-manager system. The mayor-council system has an elected mayor that leads the executive branch of the municipality and an elected city council that leads the legislative. This can be further split into a strong mayor system, where the mayor can veto legislation from the council, hire and fire heads of city departments, and oversee the budget. A weak mayor system, on the hand, is more of a spokesperson for the city council and does not have much authority. (More about this in the section of “Roles & Responsibilities” below.)
The council-manager system has elected council members that are presided over by an elected mayor or elected council members from which a mayor is picked from the group. There is then a city manager that is chosen to handle administrative functions of the government so the council focuses on legislative functions, policy making, and budget.
There are also 3 other forms of municipal government that are very uncommon. The commission form of local government is the oldest form in the U.S. and exists in less than 1% of cities (one example being Portland, Oregon). In this form, elected individual commissioners are responsible for a specific aspect (e.g. police, health, finance) and act in a governing board that has both legislative and executive functions.
The town meeting form of government allows all eligible voters to convene and decide policy and elect officials together. This is found in about 5% of municipalities, such as Marblehead, Massachusetts. Lastly, representative town meeting government takes place in less than 1% of cities (almost all in small, New England municipalities like Lexington, Massachusetts); in this form voters choose a large number of citizens to act as representatives at town meetings who then vote on and implement policy.
Municipalities have a variety of responsibilities, such as regulating zoning, clean water maintenance, garbage and sewage management, park management, and public transportation.
Los Angeles, CA
Since the structure of local governments vary, we are covering in additional detail our two “home base” cities.
Los Angeles county houses 88 cities, one of which is Los Angeles city. Each city in LA County follows the mayor-council structure with 1 elected mayor working with an elected city council. The elected officials of Los Angeles county also include the below.
Assessor (who assesses property values)
Board of Supervisors: a 5 member governing body that has 1 elected official per district, serving four-year terms
Los Angeles city follows a strong mayor structure. The current mayor of Los Angeles city is Eric Garcetti of the Democratic Party. He is allowed up to 2 four-year terms, and is currently serving his 2nd term (he was elected in 2013). Los Angeles city council has 15 elected members from each of its districts who each serve four-year terms, in addition to elected officials:
City Attorney (who prosecutes crime alongside the County DA)
Controller (the CFO of the city
You can find out who your exact district representatives are (as well as a district map) by inputting your address here.
The Superior Court of Los Angeles County is a superior court (or trial court) system that oversees the entire county, including Los Angeles city, with 47 total courthouses. They each have general jurisdiction, meaning they can hear both criminal and civil cases, over a range of issues such as family matters, marriage/divorce, estate, juvenile delinquency. The current presiding judge is Judge Kevin C. Brazile.
Any appeals from the LA County superior courts would flow up to the 2nd District Court of Appeals (there are 6 in total for the state), and ultimately to the California Supreme Court. Unlike other states, California has a Judicial Council of California that is in charge of overall administration of the court system, including policy and rule changes for the Courts of Appeal and Superior Courts. This council has 27 members:
Chief Justice (appointed by the governor) -- currently Tani Cantil-Sakauye
14 judges (appointed by Chief Justice)
4 attorney members (appointed by the State Bar Board of Governors)
1 member from each house of Legislature
6 advisory members
New York City, NY
New York City operates under a mayor-council, strong mayor structure with 1 elected mayor working with an elected city council. The current mayor of NYC is Bill de Blasio of the Democratic Party. He is allowed up to 2 four-year terms, and is currently serving his 2nd term (he was elected in 2013).
De Blasio, alongside the Public Advocate (oversees public relations with the government, also sits on the city council, and first to succeed the mayor) and Comptroller (oversees financial audits on city agencies and the five public pension funds) are the three people who hold citywide positions in NYC.
The NYC council has 51 members (1 per district) that also serve up to 2 four-year terms (except those elected before 2010, who can serve up to 3 four-year terms). The council is headed by the Speaker of the Council, who is selected by the members. You can find out who your exact district representatives are (as well as a district map) by inputting your address here.
NYC is unique in that it encompasses 5 boroughs: Manhattan, Brooklyn, Bronx, Staten Island, Queens. (There are no other boroughs in New York state.) Each of these boroughs belong to a different county within New York State: New York County, Kings County, Bronx County, Richmond County, and Queens County, respectively. Each borough functions like a county in some ways, but does not have a county government (because NYC is consolidated into 1 overall city council); however, each borough does elect a borough president.
The borough president is more of a figurehead, as they do not possess large amounts of power. They do receive some budget from the city government they control, and can also appoint members of the 59 community boards (that oversee community districts) across the boroughs. Each borough also has a borough board, composed of the borough president and council members from the borough. However, no legislative functions run through the boroughs (all run through NYC city council).
NYC contains multiple citywide trial courts to address different topics:
Civil Court of the City of New York
Criminal Court of the City
Surrogate Court (for cases involving descendants, wills, estates)
Court of Claims (for lawsuits against the State of New York involving monetary damages)
Supreme Court of the State of New York (very different from other states’ Supreme Courts in that it is a trial court of general jurisdiction, so it can hear both civil and criminal cases. There is 1 Supreme Court in every borough, and it oversees civil cases of higher dollar amounts and criminal cases with felony charges)
Each borough has its own District Attorney, who is also an elected official.
Any appeals from these trial courts flow up to the Intermediate Appellate Courts of the First & Second Departments (the Third and Fourth Departments oversee cases in New York state’s other city courts and town/village courts). Next, any appeals would move to the highest appellate court, the Court of Appeals (New York’s highest court), which has the final governing authority for the state.
Roles & Responsibilities in State & Local Politics
State & County Politics
What does the governor do?
As outlined by the National Governors Association:
Governors are elected into office as the chief executives of each state. All 50 states and 5 commonwealths have a governor. Much like the president, but on a statewide level, the governor is the leader of the executive branch of state government. It is the governor’s job to manage and implement the state budget, pass executive orders to further progress statewide policy and programs, provide order and guidance during public emergencies, and revise and veto or approve state legislation.
Each state has a slightly different version of the qualifications and term limits, the scope of the governor's authority to veto legislation, and their power to issue executive orders and take emergency action based on their individual state.
Some governors have line-item veto power, which means they can veto specific parts of the state budget or a bill. In most states, bills will become laws unless it is vetoed by the governor within a certain number of days. In a few states a bill will only pass if it is personally signed by the governor.
Most governors also have the authority to:
Appoint agency and department heads as well as the state’s court judges
Appoints a cabinet of advisors in addition to heads of boards and commissions
Act as the commander-in-chief of the state’s national guard
Enact emergency measures during natural disasters and critical emergencies
The lieutenant governor is most commonly the second-highest executive official in a state. Their powers vary depending on the state, but most generally, lieutenant governors fill vacancies in the governor’s office, sit on boards or commissions, and are involved in state Senate proceedings. Forty-three states allow citizens to elect a lieutenant governor, five states do not have one, and two appoint lieutenant governors from their state Senate (Ballotpedia)
What does the Secretary of State do?
The Secretary of State exists in all states except for Alaska, Hawaii, and Utah. Massachusetts, Pennsylvania, and Virginia opt to use the name Secretary of the Commonwealth instead. The Secretary of State is a state executive official who is elected in thirty-five states and appointed in twelve. Their duties range by state but are largely administrative, “and no two states have identical responsibilities delegated to the secretary of the state” and their areas of interest include “elections, registration, filing, licensing, custodial duties, and publishing” (Ballotpedia).
Examples of typical powers and responsibilities include:
Keep state records
Issue corporation charters
Register trade marks
Publish session laws and abstracts of votes
Record the official acts of the governor
Administer state elections and maintain results
Most states have term lengths of four years. 32 states have no term limits for the Secretary of the State and most other states have a two term maximum.
What is the role of the Treasurer, Comptroller, and Auditor?
A state treasurer is an executive official in charge of overseeing revenue and finances; they are known as their state’s “chief banker”. Nearly every state has a treasurer (who is elected in 36 states and appointed in 12); New York and Texas utilize a controller instead (Ballotpedia). A comptroller, or controller, is a state executive position in 19 states. Their duties are similar to state treasurers in that they have budgetary and managerial powers. Controllers are elected in 9 states and appointed in 10. (Ballotpedia)
While responsibilities vary by state all state treasurers are involved in overseeing state assets, investments, and fiscal well-being. To find your state treasurer, you can use this interactive map.
The role of the state auditor, or auditor general, centers around tracking government finances. They often have a strong accounting background and have worked in the Office of the Auditor General before being auditor general. They are either state executive or legislative officials, depending on the state. They exist in 48 states, half electing and half appointing their state auditors. New York and Tennessee do not have auditors, rather these duties belong to their state comptrollers (Ballotpedia).
Duties are defined by state law, but in general they ensure state programs perform their intended goals, state departments and commissions are following law and regulations, state resources are used properly, and set benchmarks. Another key role they may play is in conflict resolution amongst state agencies, performing internal government audits, investigating fraud allegations, and generally “keeping separate parts of the state government running smoothly together”. (How Stuff Works).
What do state commissioners do?
A commissioner, in its most general sense, is an individual who has authority to do something. The vast majority of states have various commissioners that are responsible for specific departments, divisions, or agencies.
The following commissioners are common state officials:
The insurance commissioner exists in all 50 states. Their duties vary by state, but they generally act as a consumer protection advocate and insurance regulator. The insurance commissioner is elected in 11 states and appointed in 39 states (Ballotpedia).
The agriculture commissioner exists in all 50 states and may also be known as Secretary of Agriculture or Director of Agriculture. They head the agriculture department and typically “oversee regulation of various facets of the agriculture industry as well as the promotion of state agribusiness” (Ballotpedia). 12 states elect the agriculture commissioner and 38 states choose by appointment.
The natural resources commissioner exists in all states except for Wyoming (whose natural resources are managed by the statewide agriculture agency). Only 4 states elect their natural resources commissioner; the rest of the state's commissioners are appointed and non-partisan. Duties include maintenance, protection, and regulation of natural resources. This includes state parks, forests, and areas of recreation (Ballotpedia).
The labor commissioner exists in all 50 states. They are responsible for the administration of state labor laws. This includes seeing that workers are treated fairly by law, managing the state’s minimum wage, overtime, and wage disputes. 4 states elect the labor commissioner, and the rest appoint their commissioners, most often by the governor (Ballotpedia). You can click here to find your labor commissioner.
Lastly, the public service commissioner is found in all 50 states and oversees regulation of essential utility services (energy, telecommunications, water, etc.). The commissioner serves on a multi-member board called a public service commission, ranging from 3 to 7 states, with a total of 201 seats across the U.S. They are elected in 11 states and appointed in 39, with most giving appointment power to the governor (Ballotpedia).
What does the Superintendent of Education do?
The superintendent of schools, also called the superintendent of education, superintendent of public instruction, or chief school administrator, is a state official who is responsible for overseeing a state’s elementary and secondary schools. This position is found in every state, and is elected in 13 and appointed in 37 (Ballotpedia). Duties vary, but include working with the school board to implement decisions, managing educational programs, responding to interest groups such as teachers, parents, advocates, and more (Stand).
What do state judges do?
Court structures vary by state, but there are similarities throughout state court systems, even if the names of the courts may differ. At the base level, cases are first tried in trial court, which hears both criminal and civil cases. To contest a ruling made in trial court, one can appeal their case in an intermediate court, also known as an appellate court. Lastly, the highest court is typically the state Supreme Court, which has the final word on interpretations of state law. Click here for a graphic of a typical state court system.
A judge is an elected or appointed official whose job it is to provide an unbiased and impartial ruling in a court of law. In court, the judge is the one who tells the official sentence of a person being tried. “In cases with a jury, the judge is responsible for ensuring that the law is followed. and the jury determines the facts. In cases without a jury, the judge also is the finder of fact.” (Rhode Island Department of Education).
A variety of cases are heard in state and local courts, including most criminal cases and specific legal matters, such as probate court (wills and estates), contract cases, tort (injury or harm) cases, family law, and most traffic and juvenile cases. All crimes in violation of state law and all cases in which the state is a plaintiff or defendant are heard in state courts. It is also worth noting that bankruptcy cases can only be tried in federal court (Judicial Learning Center).
State judges are either elected (21 states choose high court judges by election) or appointed (29 states choose high court judges by appointment). If a judge runs unopposed on an election ballot, they will automatically be re-elected for another term. Judges can be up for election in one of three ways:
Partisan: the candidate is labeled with their party affiliation on the ballot. 6 states use this method
Non-partisan: the candidate is not labeled with their party affiliation on the ballot. 15 states use this method
Up-and-down retention: eligible voters decide whether or not to elect an incumbent judge for another term
Judges in place by appointment are chosen by “merit selection”. This refers to the process of a non-partisan nominating commission, often called a judicial nominating committee, putting together a list of potential judges (typically three) for an appointing official (typically the governor) who appoints one to be a high court judge. This is called merit selection because the committee chooses applicants based on their merit, or qualifications, with the intent of promoting “judicial impartiality and integrity” (Arizona Judicial Branch).
Judges that are appointed do not have to run election campaigns in order to be appointed, but can be voted out by popular vote in the next election cycle. A state constitution and law dictates who can serve on a judicial nominating committee, and generally speaking, they are chosen by “panels of public officials, attorneys, and private citizens” (American Judicature Society). You can find information on your state's judicial nominating commission here, and information on your states judge election processes here.
What does the State Attorney General and District Attorney do?
There are varying levels of federal and state attorneys (a legally qualified practitioner in a court of law) in the U.S. court system. The U.S. Attorney and its office represents the federal government. Each state has a State Attorney General, who are considered the chief legal officers and prosecutors in their state. They are the “people’s lawyers”, meaning their job is to enforce state law by, for example, prosecuting individuals who have committed civil or criminal acts, by acting as a legal advisor to other elected officials, or prosecuting individuals or entities on behalf of the public interest (Find Law).
State Attorney Generals usually pursue civil cases, meaning cases involving private disputes between people or organizations, rather than criminal cases, meaning cases that involve actions that break a criminal law. However, in some states, Attorney Generals prosecute all criminal cases as well (Find Law). They often prioritize particular law enforcement topics (e.g. drug violations, civil rights violations) and have the power to put more resources towards these issues. To view a profile of your State Attorney General, click here.
A State Attorney General has a staff and office supporting them, such as Assistant State Attorneys (ASA) also known as a Deputy State Attorneys, who often appear in court in place of the State Attorney. In states that consider themselves commonwealths (e.g. Virginia), State Attorneys Generals are called Commonwealth Attorneys (How Stuff Works).
The role of a State Attorney General varies from state to state. Examples of typical powers may include (Association of Attorneys General):
Issue formal opinions to state agencies
Act as public advocates
Represent the state and state agencies
Represent the state in criminal appeals (except in Louisiana, Mississippi, Ohio and Pennsylvania)
Operate victim compensation programs
State Attorney Generals are either elected or appointed. 43 states have opted to elect their Attorney General and the remaining 7 use appointments (by the governor in 5 states, by the state legislature in Maine, and by the State Supreme Court in Tennessee). All but one of the elected State Attorney Generals serve four-year terms (Vermont serves a two-year term) (Ballotpedia).
A District Attorney (D.A.) is the prosecuting attorney on behalf of the county, city, or district, in local criminal cases. They can also be referred to as a Prosecuting Attorney, County Attorney or State Attorney. Their staff is commonly known as deputy district attorneys (DDAs). They work with police in multiple ways, for example: to review arrest reports and decide whether or not to file charges, and to collect evidence and build a case against a defendant, meaning the accused person or party (Legal Information Institute). To find out more about your county’s District Attorney, you can search this website.
What does the sheriff do?
A sheriff is one of the top law enforcement officials in a county and is most often an elected official. They exist in all states except for Alaska, Connecticut, and Hawaii. There are approximately 3,000 sheriffs across the U.S. (National Sheriffs’ Association). A sheriff manages sheriff’s deputies, who enact most law enforcement duties day-to-day. The law enforcement agency headed by the sheriff is called a Sheriff’s Office. Unlike sheriff deputies, the sheriff is in charge of managerial and clerical office duties, including filling out paperwork, hiring and training deputies, managing the county jail, budget management, and more, depending on what the state permits. (Learn.org)
Terms, standards of electability, and responsibilities of a sheriff vary by state. Most generally, their role is to enforce local, state, and federal law in their county. They typically have jurisdiction, or power, over any unincorporated areas of their county, unlike a police chief, who is only in charge of their town or city limits. A police chief is appointed by a city mayor or a Police Commission, acting as a municipal employee who works for and reports to elected officials (usually the mayor) in a city.
The terms of a sheriff vary by state: they are elected to four year terms in 41 states, two year terms in 3 states, a three year term in one state and a six year term in another (National Sheriffs’ Association). The vast majority of states have no limit on how many terms a sheriff may serve. To see state-by-state sheriff election information, click here.
Concerns over the sheriff's potential for abuse centers around their qualifications, accountability, and unchecked power. Their unique position being overseeing both state and local matters makes accountability difficult: “a police chief may be fired by a mayor or town council for malfeasance or simply on a whim, but short of impeachment, there is usually no way to remove a sheriff-- no matter the offense” (Governing). Who holds the sheriff accountable varies by state and county; in many cases only a specific official may arrest a sheriff, and in some states only the governor can arrest a sheriff. Furthermore, there is a notable lack of diversity amongst sheriffs: a 2015 survey by Texas Christian University found that 95% are male and 99% are white. (The Atlantic)
Generally speaking, the sheriff’s status as elected officials encourage them to be attuned to the public’s interests. This is meant to be productive, as they have a more vested interest to hear demands of the community, engaging with voters “not just at the ballot box but at the grocery store, when they [voters] approve or disapprove of what they do” (Governing). However, being at the will of voters also has negative consequences. This The Appeal article describes how during the Civil Rights movement of the 1960’s, a number of white Southern sheriffs “sought to consolidate power for whites by cracking down on Black protesters who tried to exercise their right to vote”. To find out who your county sheriff is, you can use this state-by-state locator.
What does the mayor do?
The role of a mayor depends on how a city government is structured by its municipal charter. (See “Structure of Local Government” section for breakdown of all of these structures.) Most municipalities are structured under mayor-council or council-manager systems. In a mayor-council system, the range of mayoral powers assigns authority to mayors that can be categorized as “weak” or “strong”. These categories do not denote the value or personal characteristics of a mayor, rather they explain the range of power a mayor may have. While not all may fit neatly into either category, these below classifications help show variations in a mayor’s role.
“Strong” mayors typically act in a mayor-council form of municipal government, and are elected directly by citizens. Generally speaking, a “strong” mayor is the chief executive officer of the city and works alongside the city council, which maintains legislative powers. A strong mayor is often well-represented in the public eye, such as New Orleans Mayor Ray Nagin engaging with the press after Hurricane Katrina. This form of municipal governance is more often found in older, larger cities, or in very small cities, and is most popular in the Mid-Atlantic and Midwest. Examples of cities with this type of governance include New York City, NY and Minneapolis, MN (National League of Cities).
As outlined by Ballotpedia, examples of duties of strong mayors include the following:
Appoint or remove department heads (although in some strong major cities, the city council has the authority to confirm or reject mayoral appointments)
Propose a budget to the city council
Represent their city on a state, national, and international level
Veto or line-item veto power (the ability to veto specific provisions of a bill without vetoing the whole thing)
They are typically not a member of the city council
Conversely, “weak” mayors most often act in a council-manager form of municipal government, and are selected from within the city council. This is most popular in cities with populations over 10,000, and is mainly found in the Southeast and Pacific coast areas. Examples of cities with a council-manager city government include Phoenix, AZ and San Antonio, TX. Additionally, the city council elects a city manager to oversee daily operations, draft budgets, and enforce the council’s legislative initiatives.
Lead the city council, but do not necessarily have any greater authority than other council members
Their power is checked by the city council, which has significantly more executive power than city councils found in mayor-council governments
Vote in city-council meetings
Represents the city on the state, national, and international level
However, often they do not have veto power
What do councilpeople do?
A city council is part of a city’s legislative branch. Democratically elected by citizens, a city council is tasked with proposing policies, managing budgets, and more. Its role varies depending on each city’s form of government and may include other elected positions such as city manager, clerk, attorney, and treasurer. While the national average of members on a city council is 6, it can range from 5 to 51. There is no law dictating that a council size must be proportional to its city’s population (although it usually is). Instead, a council’s size may “reflect the complexity of services provided”. (National League of Cities)
Members of a city council go by many names, including: councilmen, councilwoman, councilmember, alderman, selectmen, freeholder, trustee, or commissioner. Because city councils vary by city, specific information about the powers of your city council is best found with a search on your city’s government website. There are opportunities to attend open and public city council meetings, which can be an effective way to hear and speak about matters that pertain to your city. (See “Getting Involved In Local Politics” for more on how to find the next meeting to attend.)
Examples of powers and duties that a city council may have include the following:
Review and approve the annual budget for the city
Oversee performance of local public employees
Establish tax rates for the city
Pass ordinances and resolutions
Regulate land use through zoning laws; business activity through licensing and regulations; public health and safety laws
Represent their community to other levels of governments
Council members are often divided into committees to discuss and focus on specific issues. Examples of common city council committees are Education, Health, Public Safety, Civil and Human Rights, and Finance. Committees allow citizens to participate in open forums in which people may speak about issues of interest, and the committees can then present their findings to the whole council. In the past few decades, city councils have more often used committees to conduct research and work, with increased hiring in paid staff. (National League of Cities)
Important Aspects of Local and State Politics
Paying taxes is one of the civic responsibilities that comes with being a citizen in the United States. Non-citizen residents, including undocumented workers, also have to pay income taxes if they earn income in the United States. Undocumented workers paid $27.2 billion in taxes in 2017, in contrast to critics who argue undocumented workers are not paying taxes. A more comprehensive breakdown of taxation rules for non-U.S. citizens can be found here.
There are several different types of taxes that apply at the federal, state, and local levels. Most taxes fall into one of three types: taxes on income, property, and goods and services. Within these different types of taxes, they can either be progressive, regressive, or proportional.
A progressive tax is a tax that increases as income level increases, the theory being that high-income individuals can afford to and should pay higher taxes. A regressive tax is a tax that disproportionately affects low-income individuals as it makes up a higher percent of their income in the form of a percentage based tax or flat fee, e.g. user or registration fee. A proportional tax, also referred to as a flat tax, is a same percentage tax at all income levels. In reality, a proportional tax is a type of regressive tax as it places a greater financial burden on low-income individuals, making up a higher percent of their income.
Due to COVID-19 and the resulting economic contraction, local and state tax revenue are projected to be 15 - 20% less than expected in 2021. In response to the situation, the federal government has already provided around $500 billion to states and localities in addition to access to hundreds of billions of dollars in loans. The Tax Foundation provides a more comprehensive overview of the projected impact of COVID-19 on state and local revenue. (Read more about how tax revenue makes up local and state budgets in the Budgets section below.)
Taxes on Income
Income taxes are levied on personal & business revenue as well as any interest & dividend income (received from various investments). Generally, income tax is based on the state where the income is earned but certain states have reciprocity agreements where outside income is taxed in the state of residence.
The federal government and all but 7 states -- Alaska, Florida, Nevada, South Dakota, Texas, Washington, and Wyoming -- levy personal income taxes, with this revenue contributing between 4% to 29% of state funding. Personal income taxes are progressive with the tax rate increasing with income level. New Hampshire and Tennessee only levy taxes on dividend and interest earnings but not on wages. These states compensate for the lost revenue by levying other taxes or offering reduced services. Income taxes vary across the state in both the number of tax brackets and rates. In addition to a state income tax, 13 states have local municipalities that also levy income taxes, such as NYC. Read more here on differences in state and local income taxes.
Capital gain taxes are federal and state taxes paid on the sale of assets like real estate or stocks and bonds that are held for more than one year. Any assets that are held for less than one year are considered short-term capital gains and taxed as income. The tax rate of capital gains are up to 20%. (However, if the sale price of the asset is less than the original purchase price it can be deducted from your taxes as a “capital loss”.)
The capital gains tax is one of the most controversial aspects of the tax system. Opponents of it argue it favors the rich because the maximum tax rate is only 20% as compared to a maximum tax rate of 37% on income tax. The difference between income and capital gains is also not clear-cut, so certain individuals and businesses will construct situations where assets can be taxed as capital gains rather than as income. This article breaks down the arguments used in favor of capital gains and the way it favors the wealthy.
Estate taxes are taxes levied when property is transferred upon the death of the owner. Estate taxes were created to tax the most affluent families upon the transfer of property given the high exemption threshold before taxation. Based on the property’s worth at the time of the owner’s death, the tax is levied on the estate regardless of who inherits the property. The federal government and 12 states levy an estate tax where the tax rate is only applied above the exemption threshold.
At the federal level, $11.4 million is exempt before the tax applies and it only applies on the amount over the threshold. Estate tax rates range from 18% to 40%. Certain states may also set their own exemption threshold lower than the federal level.
In contrast, inheritance taxes are levied on the individual who receives the property. Only 6 states -- Iowa, Kentucky, Maryland, Nebraska, New Jersey, and Pennsylvania -- have an inheritance tax. Generally, for the inheritor, the closer the relationship to the decreased, the higher the exemption and the lower the tax rate on the inheritance. As with other forms of taxation, there are loopholes the wealthy have used to reduce the tax burden they face when passing down assets; additional details can be found here.
Taxes on Property
Property taxes are taxes paid to the local or state government on the value of real estate or other personal property owned by an individual or corporation. In addition to property taxes, 43 states also levy taxes on personal property including boats and cars. In general, local municipalities will assign property taxes based on the fair market value calculated annually by a tax assessor using local and national regulations and guidelines.
Property taxes are considered a proportional tax given the uniform rate applied to the assessed property value. For most local governments, property taxes are the main source of revenue. However, the exact property tax laws differ by locality and state, leading to a patchwork of property tax codes across the country. On average, a household in the U.S. pays almost $2,500 annually in property tax, although the effective tax rate ranges from 0.27% in Hawaii to 2.47% in New Jersey. Individuals who rent property are also indirectly paying property tax through the rent they are being charged. Additional property tax information by state can be found here.
An important note: The funding that school districts across the U.S. receive are in large part due to the businesses and property value within the district. Businesses pay local taxes which help fund schools so a neighborhood with more successful businesses will receive greater funding. Higher property value translates to higher property taxes that help fund schools. Funding to public school districts varies across the United States with spending ranging from $5,000 to $40,000 per student annually, with the average district spending $11,000. Since property taxes are set at the local or state level, the additional funding that a district can receive by increasing the tax rate can greatly affect school funding. NPR illustrates the differences in school funding across school districts here. The Urban Institute provides a helpful visualization example of how school funding can differ significantly across districts.
Taxes on Goods and Services
Sales taxes are taxes based on the purchase of goods or services, typically excluding necessities such as groceries and prescriptions. Sales taxes are highly dependent across states and localities both in terms of the tax rate and types of goods and services taxed. Depending on the state, there may also be a country or city sales tax. All but 5 states -- Alaska, Delaware, Montana, New Hampshire, and Oregon -- levy a sales tax with the state sales tax rate ranging from 2.9% in Colorado to 7.2% in California.
As with property taxes, sales taxes are levied at a uniform rate and are thus considered a proportional tax. However, “although individuals are taxed at the same rate, flat taxes can be considered regressive because a larger portion of income is taken [by the sale of the goods] from those with lower incomes.” (IRS) Others believe that sales taxes are considered to be the most equitable tax given that these purchases are voluntary; however, critics argue that many of the purchases made are not voluntary and place an undue burden on low-income individuals and families. For example, while prescription drugs are generally tax exempt, nonprescription drugs are taxable in most states. Additionally, critics argue that menstrual products including tampons and pads should be tax exempt as necessities.
Sin taxes are state taxes on certain goods and services like tobacco, marijuana, alcohol, and gambling activities. This tax is levied to deter individuals from purchasing or engaging in certain behavior based on their perceived ability to be harmful or costly to society. States favor the use of sin taxes as they only affect those who use goods and services considered “morally hazardous” and will often implement a sin tax as one of the first actions to fill a budget gap.
While sin taxes have drawn a significant amount of attention over the years, they make up a relatively small portion of state revenue. In 2015, sin tax made up 2% of total state revenue, although across the states it differs widely depending on what is taxed and at what rate. Read more here on a more comprehensive overview of the impact of sin taxes on state budgets.
Use taxes are local sales taxes based on the purchase of goods or services outside of an individual’s state of residence where the goods or service will be used in the individual’s state of residence. This includes any products or services that would normally have been taxable if purchased in an individual’s state of residence, e.g. clothing, appliances, furniture, etc. Individuals are charged their local sales tax rate as the use tax rate. Use tax is often lumped in with sales tax; however, few people understand and pay for use taxes and in an effort to improve compliance, states like California, Kentucky, Virginia, and Utah allow taxpayers to pay for use taxes on their tax forms. Read more here for the differences between sales and use taxes.
Tax Evasion and Avoidance
The U.S. tax system has long been called out for being a loophole-ridden system rigged to benefit the most wealthy individuals. Congress’ decision to reduce funding to the IRS has only exacerbated this issue with only one third of auditors remaining and a 15% budget reduction from 2010. Without enough staff or budget, the IRS has had to reduce its most basic functions such as pursuing individuals who do not file taxes. A ProPublica report notes that the most wealthy individuals are audited at the same rate of 1% as the poorest in the US, with the IRS admitting that the poorest are the easiest to audit. As a result, corporations and wealthy individuals are the biggest beneficiaries of the decline in audits and enforcement, which only encourages them to continue evasive practices. The Atlantic also provides more in-depth analysis here.
Individuals can avoid paying taxes through legal means (tax evasion) or illegal means (tax avoidance). Tax evasion -- the deliberate or inadvertently illegal act of not paying the taxes owed to the government -- is a significant problem in the U.S., with every 1 in 6 dollars owed to the federal government going unpaid, amounting to ~20% of the annual federal revenue. It can arise when individuals do not accurately report their income or falsify deductions, but it can also occur when individuals unintentionally make mistakes on their tax forms. Tax evasion occurs most often with the individual income tax and is more likely to occur in high-income households.
In contrast, tax avoidance is the deliberate attempt to reduce tax liability through legal means, such as by claiming legitimate tax deductions and credits and setting up tax deferral plans, e.g. deferring taxes through an IRA or 401(k) account. Estimates suggest that the top 1% of taxpayers will avoid paying up to $5 trillion in taxes over the next decade if the IRS continues to audit only 3% of individuals as it does now. The economic impact is untold with millions of dollars in lost government revenues that could fund public services.
By taking steps to improve the IRS auditing and enforcement, the government can address concerns that the system is rigged and only benefiting the rich. The Brookings Institute provides more detailed information here on the severity of tax evasion in the U.S.
Overview of Government Budgets
A government’s budget indicates the expected revenue and expenditures for the year. The budget is a government’s strategic plan and reflects the government’s prioritization of programs and services which should take into consideration the needs of its citizens. These determine what services are offered, to what extent they are offered, who they are paid by and how they are paid. Budgets are developed at the local, state, and federal level and are funded through a variety of sources.
Most local governments will maintain multiple budgets or funds for transparency and organizational purposes with a line-item budget to track all expenses. In contrast to the federal government, all 50 states except Vermont have some form of a balanced budget requirement, although generally this is only referring to a state’s operating or general fund budget (or where most state tax is deposited, read more about them below) and not the entire state budget. Read more here on the different state requirements and restrictions. See here for additional details on the structures of local government and the evolution of local government budgets.
While the specific budget process for local and state governments differ significantly, there are 3 main steps that occur annually (although some follow a biennial budget process) over the course of 6 to 9 months. The first step is to develop the budget: this includes gathering input from the different departments and drafting a recommended budget for the year before submitting to the budget office. The head of the local government (either a chief executive or mayor) will meet with the departments to discuss the budget requests before submitting a proposed budget to the local legislature. Budget development can take up to 6 months.
The next step is approval of the budget by the local legislature. Each member will review the budget in working sessions and public budget hearing sessions will be hosted to gather public opinion. This is a key area where community members can express their concerns and needs to ensure the budget is addressing them. There may also be committees that focus on specific parts of the budget.
After public and legislative opinion is incorporated and reviewed, the local legislature will then approve and adopt the budget. This typically occurs 1 to 2 months before the start of the fiscal year. Once the budget has been adopted, the budget will then be implemented and communicated to the public. The budget office is then in charge of ensuring that the funds are being spent in accordance with the budget. The local budget is a public document and you can access it by contacting your local municipality. (In tying in our two “home base” cities as an example, the NYC budget can be found here and the LA budget here.)
Types of Government Budget Funds
In general, the three most prevalent types of governmental funds are the general fund, special revenue funds, and capital funds.
General Fund: This fund covers any general operating expenses that are not allocated for a specific function, as in a special revenue fund. These include the wages, rent, and utility necessary for the daily operation of the local government.
Special Revenue Funds: These funds are established to allocate money to be used for specific functions or projects by the government. This can include anything from the construction of public spaces like parks and libraries and the maintenance of city streets and lights to the collection of community donations. Each local government will have different special revenue funds depending on the needs within their community.
By creating special revenue funds, taxpayers have an additional layer of transparency around how their tax dollars are being spent. They also keep the government accountable in terms of how they should be spending the allocated funds.
Capital Funds: These funds are established for the funding of capital expenditures that are not financed through proprietary funds or trust funds. These expenditures can include the acquisition and construction of capital facilities such as buildings or land. It is a type of special revenue fund that is most often included in almost all government budgets. The funds for capital expenditures are most often from grants, special local taxes, or the selling of general obligation bonds.
In addition to governmental funds, there are also proprietary and fiduciary funds. Proprietary funds report on activities that are self-funded by the revenue they generate, e.g. municipal utilities. Fiduciary funds report on the resources of individuals or entities that are held by the government, e.g. trust fund for employee pension plan. The Governmental Accounting Standards Board provides more detail on government funds and the relevant financial statements here.
Beyond these main three types of governmental funds, there are also several other types of funds that may exist in a budget. This includes a debt service fund, trust and agency fund, reserve fund, and enterprise fund. Read more here for additional details on these funds.
How Government Budgets are Funded
Federal, state, and local governments are funded through a variety of sources. At the federal level, taxation makes up the bulk of revenue. Of the $3.5 trillion revenue in 2019, individual income tax was the largest source, making up 50% of the federal revenue, followed by social insurance (payroll) tax at 36%, corporate income tax at 7%, excise tax at 3% and other revenue sources at 5%. In contrast, federal spending, also known as outlays, was $4.4 trillion in 2019. These two together, the revenue and spending, make up the federal budget. See more here on how federal spending was allocated in 2019.
At the state and local level, funding will differ considerably and typically comes from a variety of taxes and grants. In 2016, state governments collected $1.9 trillion in general revenue. Taxes made up roughly half of that revenue with sales tax and individual income tax contributing ~20% each and the remaining from other taxes including corporate income and estate taxes.
Government transfers, primarily from the federal government to the state government, contributed one third of state revenue and additional miscellaneous fees brought in another 20%. Government transfers include federal grants for public welfare programs like Medicaid; additional miscellaneous fees include public university tuition and highway tolls. Since 1977, government transfers have grown from 10% to 18% of the state government revenue as states looked to broaden revenue sources outside of taxes.
In 2016, local governments collected $1.6 trillion in general revenue. Taxes made up 41%, government transfers made up 36% and miscellaneous fees made up the remaining 22%. At the local level, property taxes are the primary source of tax revenue at 30% with 7% from sales tax and the remaining 5% from individual income and other taxes. The majority of government transfers are from the state level which include indirect federal funds although local governments do receive some federal grants. Over two-thirds of the state transfers were directly for public education programs while almost half of the federal transfers were for housing programs.
The Tax Policy Center provides an in-depth review of state and local government revenue sources here.
How the Government Budget is Spent
State and local government spending generally falls into six major categories:
Elementary and secondary education
Health and hospitals
Police and corrections
Highways and roads
Public welfare programs are the greatest state and local expenditures at 22%, with elementary and secondary education following at 20%; higher education and health and hospitals are 10% each with police and corrections making up 7% and highways and roads the remaining 6%.
Public welfare expenditures: Public welfare programs funded through local and state governments include payments made to individuals through programs such as Temporary Assistance for Needy Families (TANF) and Supplemental Security Income (SSI) and payments made to physicians and providers through programs such as Medicaid.
In 2017, these state and local expenditures amounted to $673 billion. 96% of spending went towards operational expenses including program administration and payments made to Medicaid providers, nonprofits, or other public service programs, however medical care made up the bulk of this at 80%. The remaining 4% went to individual assistance programs like TANF.
Programs like Medicaid or TANF are typically administered through the state, spending 40% on public welfare with the aid of federal funding as compared to 4% by local governments. Over time, the spending on public welfare has increased from $140 billion to $673 billion, mainly driven by rising healthcare costs.
Elementary and secondary education expenditures: These include any expenditures related to the construction, maintenance, and operation of K-12 public schools. In 2017, these expenditures amounted to $660 billion across state and local governments. 90% of these expenditures went towards operational expenses including the salaries and benefits of public school employees, textbooks and materials, transportation, and lunch programs while the remaining 10% were spent on construction, renovation, and maintenance.
In contrast to public welfare spending, local governments spent 40% of their revenue on elementary and secondary education in comparison to state governments who spent <1%, because states typically only finance education through funds to local governments rather than direct spending.
Spending on education has only continued to increase, from $300 billion in 1977 to $660 billion in 2017. See the “Taxes on Property” section for more detail on the differences in school funding across districts.
Higher education expenditures: These include any expenditures related to the