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How to Government #4: The Difference Between Federal, State and Local Governments

Now that we've gone through the three branch structure of the federal government, let's move on to something even more confusing--state and local government! How do federal, state, and local governments differ? How much power do they each have? How are they structured? What is a State Legislature?! WHAT IS A CITY COUNCIL? WHY ARE THERE SO MANY COUNCILS AND DEPARTMENTS? WHEN WILL THE RABBIT HOLE END?!

Don't worry, guys. We're gonna get through it. And it's really not that complicated. We just have to start from the top and go through the layers. Just try to pretend you're Mary Berry from the Great British Bake-Off. You just want to see those layers. You want clear definition. You want flavor. You want a nice, moist sponge. Sorry, I started thinking about cake:

Anyway... The federal government has to make sweeping laws for the nation to have a sense of uniformity. However, the U.S. is a big country with different needs depending on where you live. Since different states have different needs, the Founding Fathers had to devise a system that would allow states to have a semblance of independence and an ability to govern according to those needs. This system became known as Federalism.

This video by Crash Course gives a helpful breakdown into the history of Federalism and how the U.S. settled on its specific form today:

I recommend the rest of Crash Course's series on U.S. Government and Politics. It has been a great resource for me in researching for this website.

So now that we know how the U.S. came to be in its state of mostly Cooperative Federalism, what powers do the federal and state governments actually have? The diagram below shows the differences between the two:

Venn diagram Federalism

So as you can see, the national government mostly deals with issues concerning the country at large, especially in foreign relations, like declaring war or entering treaties with other countries. Economically speaking, certain systems have to be the same everywhere in order for the country to function efficiently. This is why currency and the post office are run by the federal government.

State governments get to focus on specific needs determined by the population and make-up of that state. A state with a dense population might have different educational needs than a more rural, sparsely populated state. Because of that, the structure of local government is determined by each state. States are also in charge of issuing marriage, driver and business licenses. Both state and federal governments are able to collect taxes from their people for different things, they are able to make laws, and establish courts.

What legal scope does the national government have over states? This article will get really long if I list all of them but the federal government can make laws concerning: immigration, Social Security, copyright, and civil rights. State governments can make laws concerning: property, criminal cases, divorce and family issues, Medicaid and welfare. In situations where state and federal laws clash, federal law usually comes out on top. If something is legal in one state and not the other--for instance, medical marijuana--a person can only smoke pot in a state that legally allows it. It can get pretty confusing keeping track of different laws and powers like this but you gotta just take it day by day, step by step, one puff at a time.

To get a more specific idea, we're going to take a look at the state of California to see how each level of government breaks down:

california flag

Most state governments are modeled after the federal government with three branches. The highest office in California, and in every state, is that of the governor. In California's case, we have Governor Jerry Brown and he heads the Executive Branch. Other top positions in that branch are: Lieutenant Governor, Attorney General, Secretary of State and more. These titles differ from state to state. State agencies like the Health and Humans Services Agency and the Department of Food and Agriculture are considered a part of the Executive Branch.

Next we have the Legislative branch which is referred to as the State Legislature. The Legislature in each state is formed like the federal branch with two bodies (except for Nevada, which only has one). As the U.S. has a Senate and House of Representatives, California has a Senate and "Assembly". In CA, the State Senate has 40 members that serve four year terms, and a State Assembly of 80 members that serve two year terms.

Each state has their own Judicial system, beginning with a State Supreme Court. California's Supreme Court consists of seven judges. Below that, the state has six appellate courts and below that, a superior court for each county (58 counties in total). Each level of court deals with different types of cases, starting at misdemeanors and going up to felonies.

Now that we have a better understanding of the structure of state government, let's dig deeper to the local level: county and city. First off, take a look at this infographic about the differences between all three bodies of government. I know, it's a source for children, and I'm not above using it! It's got a lot of good details:

Difference between federal state and local government

So to continue to the local level, we're going to examine Los Angeles--home of The Future Looks Like Us. Los Angeles is conveniently part of Los Angeles County. With a population of over 10 million people, L.A. County is run by a five member Board of Supervisors that are elected to office. Other elected officers in L.A. County are the Sheriff, District Attorney and Assessor. There are many departments within the county like the Department of Parks and Recreation and the Department of Public Works. Counties typically govern institutions like healthcare, social services, law enforcement, fire protection, elections and voter registration. Different counties across America vary in structure. I encourage you to look up your local government and learn about it.

There are 88 cities within L.A. County, so let's focus on the big one: Los Angeles. The city's government has a mayor-council structure with current mayor, Eric Garcetti. The mayor can serve up to two 4-year terms and Garcetti just started his second term this year. The mayor must work with their city council. L.A.'s city council is made up of 15 members elected by the public. City council members can serve up to three 4-year terms. The city council works like a legislature, creating ordinances for the mayor to approve or veto. Councils have the power to levy taxes, authorize public improvements (like more Metro lines), and order elections. The Mayor works on creating a budget and the council can approve or modify it.

A city's government deals with the basic nitty-gritty of living. The city is in charge of its police, utility companies, housing. Think of city government as your landlord. Do you need your gas lines checked? Call the city and they'll come look at it for you. Are you mad about another rent hike? Go to a city hall meeting and demand that they lower property taxes. The city is here to provide services for you, to make life easier. That is why local government is so important. If you want to get involved in politics, local government can be the perfect place to start. Most issues are non-partisan because you are simply working to provide services for your people. You can make a direct influence in their lives. You can keep the city running. That's what we'll highlight on the next How to Government posts. We'll delve into the details of different positions in local government that you can run for. If we start small, we can build from there.