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State and Local Government, Authority of State and Local Government

coining money, City charters, community unity, states power, pass laws

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.

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