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State and Local Government, Current Trends and Issues

recent Supreme Court decisions, welfare recipients, bureaucracies, active state, federalism

The current relationship of state and local governments with the national government is not simply the story of Washington, D.C., encroaching on small-town America. In fact, though the federal government has installed minimum requirements and standards in areas such as civil rights and pollution control, active state and local governments have broadened the scope of their activities and the size of their budgets.

Many state and local governments showed renewed energy in the 1990s. Some organized charter schools, which enable citizens to start alternative schools that are publicly funded. Others installed voucher systems that permit parents using a state-issued voucher to send their children to private schools. States have set limits on how long elected officials can serve in an office. They have also established limits on property taxes and have developed different forms of job training for welfare recipients. Some hope to fulfill an expectation that they are “laboratories for democracy”: closer to the people than the federal government and small enough to experiment with new and innovative practices.

In addition to expanding their budgets, state and local governments have also increased the size of their bureaucracies and their regulatory power over citizens. Based on the Tenth Amendment, which reserves powers not delegated to the federal government for the states, recent Supreme Court decisions have limited the federal government’s authority. For example, the federal government is unable to ask local law enforcement agencies to do minor administrative jobs, such as performing background checks on gun purchasers. Such limitations will lead to increased independence of state and local governments.

In the late 20th century, federalism resembled a marbled cake. The national, state, and local governments share functions and financing. This cooperation and sharing often made the roles of individual units difficult to distinguish. This differed from the traditional arrangement of the past, in which federal, state, and local governments functioned as a layer cake—the local governments on the bottom, then the state, and finally the federal government.

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