Powers and Authority

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

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. As chiefs of the state, Governors serve as the intergovernmental liaison to the federal government on behalf of the state.

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
  • Clemency authority

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


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, except for 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 2021, source: The Council of State Governments).

For state by state information on gubernatorial term limits, see NGA’s Governors Roster, and “Constitutional and Statutory Provisions for Number of Consecutive Terms of Elected State Officials” (Table 4.9, The Book of the States 2021, source: The Council of State Governments).


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 2021, source: The Council of State Governments). For more information on lieutenant Governors and other executive branch officials, see the Appointment Power section below.


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 2021, source: The Council of State Governments). For more information on lieutenant Governors, see the Appointment Power section below.

Governors play three broad roles in relation to state legislatures. First, they may propose legislation and convey policy priorities, often through a State of the State address. Second, 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. Third, and more familiarly, Governors coordinate and work with state legislatures in:

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

Legislative Role  

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 2021, 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.

Every legislative bill that is passed by the state legislative body is presented to the Governor for signing. State laws prescribe how much time the Governor is allotted to sign or veto proposed legislation following transmittal. Legislation may go into effect without the Governor’s signature after a statutorily mandated time has elapsed. Different rules may apply depending on whether the state is in a regular legislative session, post legislative-adjournment, or if the state is in special session.

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, legislative officials, and other stakeholders.

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 the Governor formally signs them, 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 2021, source: The Council of State Governments) and “Enacting Legislation: Veto, Veto Override and Effective Date” (Table 3.16, The Book of the States 2021, 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 2021, 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 2021, 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 in five states—Alaska, Hawaii, New Hampshire, New Jersey, and Wyoming—appoint the state attorney general.

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 2021, 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 2021, 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 2021, source: The Council of State Governments).


Governors are charged by their state constitutions with responsibility to see that the laws are faithfully executed by the many people and organizations that comprise the executive branch. Day-to-day administrative responsibilities are delegated to state agencies supervised by the Governor. 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 2021, source: The Council of State Governments).

Clemency Power

Clemency is an umbrella term that refers to several mechanisms that allow for the remittance of consequences of a committed crime. Virtually every state constitution authorizes the Governor or a board of pardons to grant clemency, although terminology, procedure, and structure may vary greatly from state to state. Generally, clemency authorities refer to the following executive powers:

  • A pardon is an official nullification of legal consequences for a crime. The granting of a pardon by the Governor or formal pardons board may restore civil rights for services to the state, such as the right to vote, the right to bear arms, or the ability to serve in the military.
  • Commutation shortens an individual’s sentence. If a commutation shortens an individual’s sentence to time served, it results in that individual’s release. Upon release, an individual whose sentence is commuted may remain on community supervision or may be released without ongoing supervision.
  • A reprieve suspends an individual’s sentence or temporarily delays the imposition or resumption of a sentence, including for an individual with a death sentence.

Executive Orders & Regulatory Authority

Understanding how state constitutions and statutes specify characteristics of the executive branch—as well as the legislative branch and judicial branch—is important and may help mitigate separation of powers disputes. Although scope varies in each state, governors generally possess broad executive authority to act within their states. These authorities are excised through executive orders or proclamations and the state regulatory process.

Executive Orders

The authority for Governors to issue executive orders is found in state constitutions and states 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 and related response actions during natural disasters, weather events, energy crises, public health emergencies, mass casualty events, and other situations requiring immediate attention;
  • create advisory, coordinating, study, or investigative committees or commissions;
  • create or reorganize state agencies, boards, and commissions;
  • address executive branch management and administrative issues such as regulatory reform, environmental impact, hiring freezes, discrimination, and intergovernmental coordination; and
  • other actions within the Governor’s executive authority, including announcing/establishing gubernatorial priorities and initiatives.

Depending on state authorities, Governors may also issue an executive order or proclamation to declare special elections to fill vacancies in certain elected offices. 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 2021, source: The Council of State Governments).

Regulatory Authority

The executive branch executes laws passed by the state legislatures, with state agencies, departments, or boards often instructed to promulgate rules and regulations to implement those laws. Legislative review processes for rule promulgations vary widely among the states. In many states, Governor’s offices have set up processes to coordinate and oversee these rule promulgations to ensure that the rules adopted by the departments and agencies reflect the Governor’s priorities and philosophy.

Emergency Powers & Disaster Response

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 the COVID-19 pandemic, 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.

Emergency Powers

Gubernatorial emergency powers, generally activated through the implementation of a state declaration of emergency or disaster, provide Governors avenues to enhance capabilities, coordination, and collaboration across state and local agencies. They also give states flexibility to respond to exigent circumstances, including the reallocation of state and federal funds. Further, emergency declarations allow Governors to temporarily modify their state’s statutory, regulatory, and legal framework to respond to the changing nature of an emergency more quickly.

Although statutory schemes vary, all states give the Governor the authority to declare one or more types of emergencies, including a disaster emergency or a public health emergency. State laws specify how these legal declarations are made, durational limitations, legislative involvement, and other potential constraints. 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.

National Guard

When National Guard units are not under federal control, Governors are the commanders and chief of state militias with the responsibility to protect the safety of the states’ citizens. The National Guard may be deployed for active duty by a Governor to help respond to domestic emergencies, such as riots or mass casualty incidents, and disasters, such as hurricanes, floods, and earthquakes. Governors exercise control through the state adjutants general.