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Civics 101: States rights' and Tennessee counties

J. H. Osborne • Sep 17, 2018 at 2:14 PM

This week in Civics 101: states’ rights and how they directly influence local governments in Tennessee.

In the United States, the federal and state governments both hold power. Before the Constitution, the 13 colonies governed themselves individually much like state governments. It was not until the Articles of Confederation and then the Constitution that a national or federal government was established. Today, although each state has its own constitution, these state constitutions cannot conflict with the U.S. Constitution. The U.S. Constitution is the supreme law of the land. The state governments hold powers not given to the federal government in the U.S. Constitution. Some powers of the state government are the power to create traffic regulations and marriage requirements and to issue driver’s licenses. The Constitution also provides a list of powers that the states do not have. For example, states cannot coin (create) money. The state and federal governments also share some powers, such as the ability to tax people.

Among powers belonging to the states under the United States Constitution are:

• Provide schooling and education

• Provide protection (police)

• Provide safety (fire departments)

• Give a driver’s license

• Approve zoning and land use

County government in Tennessee is created by the state. The skeleton of county government is established in the state constitution. For those elements not spelled out in the state constitution, Tennessee law builds upon the framework set out in that document and starts putting the “meat on the bones.”

The other primary form of local government in Tennessee is municipal government. “Municipality” is another word for city or town. County government and municipal government are two different things. Tennessee has more than 340 municipalities. These cities and towns can incorporate in a number of different ways and may perform some of the same functions as a county — or provide additional services, or higher levels of service. Counties do not have the same flexibility and are much more static. Since much of the structure of county government is established by the Tennessee Constitution, it takes much more time and effort to change.

Because the U.S. Constitution gives the power of schooling and education to the states, and the Tennessee Constitution extended that power to the state’s counties, as arms of the state, counties are required to provide an educational system. Cities are not. Similarly, the state extended its power to provide protection to counties in the form of sheriffs. It’s the reason certain elected county officials are “constitutional officeholders.” Their offices and duties are required by the Tennessee Constitution, under the authority of the rights granted to the states under the U.S.Constitution.

Sources: United States Citizenship and Immigration Service; Tennessee County Commissioners Association

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