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State Powers

The government of the United States is a definite government, confined to specified objects. It is not like state governments, whose powers are more general.

Rep. James Madison of Virginia – Speech to the House, January 10, 1794

People have the right to know what their governments can and cannot do.

This was one of the most brilliant insights of the American founders, who established written constitutions for each of the states and for the United States as a whole. These constitutions made it clear to the people which powers they were delegating to which governments. Those powers not delegated were retained by the people.

The intent of our federalist structure was that the federal government would have a limited set of powers, which deal primarily with the relationships between the United States and foreign powers, and between the states themselves. The states, on the other hand, would have more general powers of legislation over domestic affairs.

That government is, or ought to be, instituted for the common benefit, protection, and security of the people, nation, or community….

George Mason – Virginia Declaration of Rights, Section 3 (excerpt)

The exact powers delegated to the states are defined by the states themselves in their respective constitutions, so there is no way to compose a comprehensive list of the powers delegated to the states. It will vary from state to state, and state constitutions are fairly regularly revised and even replaced.

We can, however, say a few things about what powers the states have:

  • State governments, like the federal government, are positively obligated under natural law to defend the human rights. This includes an obligation to operate within the explicit constitutional limits on their authority in accord with the principle of self governance.
  • Each state has the authority to form its own government of its own design, however this government must take a republican form (U.S. Constitution, Article IV, Section 3, Clause 2).
  • States have the authority to run their own state and local elections, and concurrent authority with Congress to run congressional and presidential elections.
  • States may make laws, enforce laws, and punish criminals within their borders (so long as they comply with natural law and the provisions of the U.S. Constitution).

Beyond these, it is largely up to the people of each state to define what powers their states will have, so long as they do not conflict with natural law or with the powers delegated to the federal government by the U.S. Constitution. Here are a few examples of things that would be properly handled by the states (or delegated by the states to the localities):

  • Law enforcement (sole responsibility for domestic; concurrent with the federal government regarding legitimate federal laws)
  • Fire and medical services
  • Education and schools
  • Disaster and emergency response
  • Roads and highways (sole responsibility for domestic; concurrent with the federal government for interstate)
  • Business regulation (sole responsibility for domestic; concurrent with the federal government for interstate and international)
  • Welfare and social “safety net” programs
  • Parks and recreation
  • Land use regulation (only so far as permitted given the human right to property)

The powers not delegated to the United States by the Constitution, nor prohibited by it to the States, are reserved to the States respectively, or to the people.

U.S. Constitution, Amendments, Article X