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Governors' Powers and Authority

Overview

 

Governors, all of whom are popularly elected, serve as the chief executive officers of the fifty states and five commonwealths and territories.

 

As state managers, governors are responsible for implementing state laws and overseeing the operation of the state executive branch. As state leaders, governors advance and pursue new and revised policies and programs using a variety of tools, among them executive orders, executive budgets, and legislative proposals and vetoes.

 

Governors carry out their management and leadership responsibilities and objectives with the support and assistance of department and agency heads, many of whom they are empowered to appoint. A majority of governors have the authority to appoint state court judges as well, in most cases from a list of names submitted by a nominations committee.

 

Although governors have many roles and responsibilities in common, the scope of gubernatorial power varies from state to state in accordance with state constitutions, legislation, and tradition, and governors often are ranked by political historians and other observers of state politics according to the number and extent of their powers. Ranking factors may include the following.

 

  • Qualifications and tenure
  • Legislative—including budget and veto—authority
  • Appointment sovereignty

 

Although not necessarily a ranking factor, the power to issue executive orders and take emergency actions is a significant gubernatorial responsibility that varies from state to state.

 

 

Qualifications and Tenure

 

Qualifications

 

States, commonwealths, and territories vary with respect to minimum age, U.S. citizenship, and state residency requirements for gubernatorial candidates and office holders. The minimum age requirement for governors ranges from no formal provision to age 35. The requirement of U.S. citizenship for gubernatorial candidates ranges from no formal provision to 20 years. State residency requirements range from no formal provision to 7 years.

 

 

Term Limits

 

Gubernatorial terms are four years in every state, commonwealth, and territory but New Hampshire and Vermont, which have two year terms. All governors with the exception of Virginia’s may succeed themselves, although they may be limited to a specific number of consecutive or total terms.

 

For state by state information on gubernatorial qualifications, see "The Governors: Qualifications for Office"(Table 4.2, The Book of the States 2012, source: The Council of State Governments).

 

For state by state information on gubernatorial term limits, see NGA’s Current Governors by State, Party, and Terms in Office, and "Constitutional and Statutory Provisions for Number of Consecutive Terms of Elected State Officials" (Table 4.9, The Book of the States 2012, source: The Council of State Governments).

 

 

Vacancies/Succession

 

In the event of a vacancy in office, the lieutenant governor is the designated official who succeeds the governor in 49 states and territories (in two of which—Tennessee and West Virginia—the president/speaker of the Senate and lieutenant governor are one and the same). In the remaining 5 states and the Commonwealth of Puerto Rico, officials designated to succeed the governor include the secretary of state and leader of the senate.

 

For state by state information on succession, see "The Governors" (Table 4.1, The Book of the States 2012, source: The Council of State Governments). For more information on lieutenant governors and other executive branch officials, see the Appointment Power section below.

 

 

Impeachment

 

All states except Oregon provide for the impeachment of governors. As in the case of the federal government, the impeachment process starts with the lower body of the legislature and the trial is conducted by the upper body in every state but Alaska—where the process is reversed, and Nebraska, which has a unicameral legislature charged with the full impeachment process. In most cases, impeachment requires a majority of members, while conviction generally requires a two-thirds or other special majority.

 

Should a governor be impeached, the lieutenant governor serves as acting governor in the vast majority of states. For state by state information on impeachment, see "Impeachment Provisions in the States" (Table 4.8, The Book of the States 2012, source: The Council of State Governments). For more information on lieutenant governors, see the Appointment Power section below.

 

 

Legislative Role

 

Governors play two broad roles in relation to state legislatures. First, they may be empowered to call special legislative sessions, provided in most cases that the purpose and agenda for the sessions are set in advance. Second, and more familiarly, governors coordinate and work with state legislatures in:

 

  • approval of state budgets and appropriations;
  • enactment of state legislation;
  • confirmation of executive and judicial appointments; and
  • legislative oversight of executive branch functions.

 

 

Approval of State Budgets and Appropriations

 

Governors develop and submit annual or biennial budgets for review and approval by the legislature. In a number of states, commonwealths, and territories, governors also have "reduction"—most often referred to as "line-item"—veto power that can be used for the removal of appropriations to which they object. These tools allow governors and their budget staff to play a strong role in establishing priorities for the use of state resources.  For state by state information on gubernatorial budget making and line-item veto power, see "The Governors: Powers" (Table 4.4, The Book of the States 2012, source: The Council of State Governments).

 

 

Enactment of Legislation

 

Governors often use State of the State messages to outline their legislative platforms, and many governors prepare specific legislative proposals to be introduced on their behalf. In addition, state departments and agencies may pursue legislative initiatives with gubernatorial approval. Executive branch officials often are called to testify on legislative proposals, and governors and other executive branch leaders will seek to mobilize public opinion and interest groups in favor of or opposition to specific legislative proposals. Governors may use their role as party leaders to encourage support for legislative initiatives, and along with department heads and staff may seek to influence the progress of legislation through regular meetings with legislators and legislative officials.

 

 

Veto Power

 

All 50 state governors have the power to veto whole legislative measures. In a large majority of states a bill will become law unless it is vetoed by the governor within a specified number of days, which vary among states. In a smaller number of states, bills will die (pocket veto) unless they are formally signed by the governor, also within a specified number of days. Other types of vetoes available to the governors of some states include "line-item" (by which a governor can strike a general item from a piece of legislation), "reduction" (by which a governor can delete a budget item), and "amendatory" (by which a governor can revise legislation). Legislatures may override vetoes, usually by a supermajority vote.

 

For state by state information about veto powers, see "The Governors: Powers" (Table 4.4, The Book of the States 2012, source: The Council of State Governments) and "Enacting Legislation: Veto, Veto Override and Effective Date" (Table 3.16, The Book of the States 2012, source: The Council of State Governments).

 

 

Confirmation of Appointments

 

Many gubernatorial appointments require legislative confirmation. For additional information, see the Appointment Power section below as well as "Selected State Administrative Officials: Methods of Selection" (Table 4.10, The Book of the States 2012, source: The Council of State Governments).

 

 

Legislative Oversight

 

Governors interact with their legislatures to help ensure that their priorities, goals, and accomplishments are accurately presented and positively received during oversight hearings and other legislative activities that address and evaluate executive branch implementation of legislatively mandated programs and services.

 

 

Appointment Power

 

Gubernatorial Appointments - Overview

 

Most governors have broad authority to nominate officials to serve in state executive branch positions—many of whom will be included in the governor’s advisory committee, known as the "cabinet." Governors may be empowered as well to make appointments to state judgeships. Frequently, these appointments are subject to confirmation by one or both houses of the state legislature. While often pro forma in nature, the confirmation process with respect to executive branch appointments can be used by legislatures to expand their influence on governors and their policies. Accordingly, many governors consult with key legislators before making formal nominations.

 

For state by state information on the methods of selecting state officials, see "Selected State Administrative Officials: Methods of Selection" (Table 4.10, The Book of the States 2012, source: The Council of State Governments).

 

 

Boards and Commissions

 

The roles played by boards and commissions vary considerably by state and by program. In some states appointed boards have the primary responsibility for individual programs and agencies and are responsible for the selection of department and agency heads. This is particularly true in the field of education, but boards still retain responsibility for a broad range of other programs in fields such as labor, transportation and health and human services.

 

In many states the members of these boards are named or nominated by the governor. And in many of these cases, board members are subject to confirmation by one or both houses of the legislature.

 

Other boards play more limited regulatory or advisory roles. In most states boards oversee the licensing and regulation of numerous professions and business areas. In other states they advise the governor on areas of importance such as the environment and economic development.

 

While the elimination and/or consolidation of boards and commissions is a common focus of government efficiency and government reorganization initiatives, they still play a prominent role in state government, providing opportunities to address the concerns of special interests and to reward political supporters.

 

 

Executive Branch Positions Independently Selected

 

A large number of states provide for the independent selection of certain executive branch positions. Most noteworthy among these positions are lieutenant governor, secretary of state, attorney general, and treasurer.

 

The position of lieutenant governor exists in the overwhelming majority of states, where the position is most often filled by popular statewide election and jointly with the governor, although in a small number of cases the role of lieutenant governor is assigned by state law to another position in either the executive or legislative branch (e.g., secretary of state or leader of the senate). The positions of secretary of state, attorney general, and treasurer are all subject to statewide popular election in the majority of states, and at least one of the three is elected in most of the remaining states.

 

Governors generally have limited authority in the appointment of state comptrollers and pre and post audit department heads. Governors’ appointment powers are also limited with regard to the heads of state education and higher education agencies. The education department head is independently elected statewide in 14 states and is appointed—independent of gubernatorial approval—by a board or agency head in 20 states and two territories. In most states and territories, the higher education head is appointed by a board independent of gubernatorial approval.

 

A number of states also provide for the statewide election of one or more other department heads, among them public utility regulators and the heads of agriculture, labor, and natural resources departments.

 

As with governors, other statewide elected positions may be subject to age, citizenship, and state residency requirements, as well as term limits.

 

For state by state data on the joint election of governors and lieutenant governors, see "The Governors" (Table 4.1, The Book of the States 2012, source: The Council of State Governments).

 

For state by state information on the methods of selecting state officials, see "Selected State Administrative Officials: Methods of Selection" (Table 4.10, The Book of the States 2012, source: The Council of State Governments).

 

For state by state information on eligibility requirements for state officials, see "Constitutional and Statutory Provisions for Number of Consecutive Terms of Elected State Officials" (Table 4.9, The Book of the States 2012, source: The Council of State Governments).

 

 

Cabinets

 

State cabinets, which serve as advisory councils to the nation’s governors, generally are made up of officials appointed by the governor to head state departments and agencies, and in some cases top-level staff in the governor’s immediate office. In most states the cabinet fulfills two functions:

 

  • advises the governor on the development of policy; and
  • serves as a vehicle for the governor or senior staff to convey priorities to gubernatorial appointees and address cross-agency issues or concerns.

 

In a number of states, governors have created sub-cabinets to bring together agencies to address issues such as the needs of children.

 

Forty-four states and all of the commonwealths and territories have cabinets and/or sub-cabinets. Cabinets themselves may have their origin in law, tradition, and/or the governor’s discretion. Cabinet membership may be a product of appointment to a specific office or be subject to selection by the governor. Cabinet size, and the frequency of cabinet meetings and formality and extent to which a governor uses his or her cabinet for advice and assistance, varies among the states, commonwealths, and territories.

 

For state by state information on cabinets, see "State Cabinet Systems" (Table 4.6, The Book of the States 2012, source: The Council of State Governments).

 

 

Executive Orders

 

The authority for governors to issue executive orders is found in state constitutions and statutes as well as case law, or is implied by the powers assigned to state chief executives. Governors use executive orders—certain of which are subject to legislative review in some states—for a variety of purposes, among them to:

 

  • trigger emergency powers during natural disasters, energy crises, and other situations requiring immediate attention;
  • create advisory, coordinating, study, or investigative committees or commissions; and
  • address management and administrative issues such as regulatory reform, environmental impact, hiring freezes, discrimination, and intergovernmental coordination.

 

For state by state information on the power of governors to issue executive orders, see "Gubernatorial Executive Orders: Authorization, Provisions, Procedures" (Table 4.5, The Book of the States 2012, source: The Council of State Governments).

 

 

Emergency Powers

 

As chief executive, governors are responsible for ensuring their state is adequately prepared for emergencies and disasters of all types and sizes. Most emergencies and disasters are handled at the local level, and few require a presidential disaster declaration or attract worldwide media attention. Yet governors must be as prepared for day-to-day events—tornadoes, floods, power outages, industrial fires, and hazardous materials spills—as for catastrophes on the scale of Hurricane Katrina or the September 11 terrorist attacks. States focus on four stages of disaster or emergency management:

 

  • Prepare
  • Prevent
  • Respond
  • Recover

 

These components afford a useful rubric for thinking about the cycle of disasters and emergencies and for organizing recommendations for state action. During an emergency, the governor also plays a key role in communicating with the public during an emergency, providing advice and instructions and maintaining calm and public order.

 

State emergency management laws usually define how a governor may declare and end a state of emergency. In some cases, the necessary response to a disaster is beyond the capacity of state and local governments. A state may petition the President to declare a major disaster. The declaration of a major disaster triggers a variety of federal programs depending on the scope of the disaster and the type of losses experienced.