The Mysterious Decay of Our 50 States

This is another commentary in Civic Way’s series on reconstructing American government. The author, Bob Melville, is the founder of Civic Way, a nonprofit dedicated to good government, and a management consultant with over 45 years of experience improving governmental agencies across the US. Our earlier commentary on the collapse of American Federalism is a useful companion piece for this commentary.


  • As the pandemic reveals the fragility of state government, we should do more than offer handouts, we should invest in modernization and restructuring so states will be less vulnerable the next time
  • If we want to be prepared for the next crisis, we can no longer afford so many state governments and so little interstate coordination and cooperation
  • Our state executive branches are too fragmented to meet the challenges of our times
  • State court systems cannot impartially mete justice if our judges cannot rise above political pressures and influence
  • The rigid partisanship and ideological fever that have polarized Congress is spreading to many state legislatures and threatens to bring political paralysis to our states
  • The next federal stimulus package offers a generational opportunity to link state relief with state government reform


We Americans are natural skeptics and critics. We question virtually every aspect of our daily lives—internet speed, cars, prices, movies, sports, traffic and taxes—but rarely state government. We have 50 states, a nice round number, but how did we end up with 50? More importantly, is this the optimum number of states? How should state governments be organized, managed or financed to better control our taxes, meet our needs or protect us from future threats?

Given the astounding size of state government and its vulnerability to calamity (like recessions and pandemics), our neglect is inexplicable. In FY17, total direct state spending (excluding inter-governmental transactions) was $2.3 trillion, nearly 10 percent of our Gross Domestic Product (GDP). In contrast, the auto sector represents only about 3 percent of the GDP. During the Great Recession and its aftermath, states suffered devastating revenue losses, a blow from which most had not fully recovered at the beginning of the pandemic. And they face escalating demands in health care and education in the months ahead.

This year’s pandemic has once again revealed the fragility of many state governments. State revenues fell by over 10 percent in FY20 and could fall by at least 20 percent in FY21 and FY22. Despite tapping reserve funds, incurring short-term debt and deferring many investments, states are enduring or facing draconian cuts to education, health care and infrastructure. According to the Center on Budget and Policy Priorities, state governments could suffer over $600 billion in deficits through 2022—after exhausting reserves. We can hope otherwise, but state government’s fiscal crisis will likely worsen in FY21 and FY22.

Are we paying attention? So far, not so much. Despite ample media coverage of Covid-related budget problems, voters rejected most state tax increase measures last month (except for marijuana excise taxes). California voters rejected a property tax reform proposition. Illinois voters rejected the governor’s signature tax proposal. Colorado voters even backed a small income tax rate cut. Only Arizona voters approved a significant income tax increase. Does this mean that voters don’t care about state government or buy their tales of fiscal woe? Perhaps. It also may mean that they expect our leaders to fix state government.

State Government’s Race to the Bottom

States came into being as our nation grew. We have had 50 states for over 60 years. Only five states entered the union during the 20th Century—Alaska, Hawaii, Oklahoma, Arizona and New Mexico. Most states entered the union during the 19th Century, including seven from 1889 to 1896, five from 1861 to 1876 and 16 from 1812 to 1859. The first 17 states included the original 13 colonies and four states that joined the union shortly thereafter.

State boundaries were often set using rivers, topography, parallels and meridians. Sometimes, they were set arbitrarily. Over half of the states have had boundary disputes, many involving surveying errors, shifting rivers or contrasting legal interpretations. Most disputes have been settled via state agreements, congressional action or judicial rulings, but many border anomalies remain—the Kentucky Bend, Iowa’s Carter Lake, the Eastern Virginia shore, Ohio’s Toledo strip and Minnesota’s Northwest Angle.

We have 50 states of starkly different sizes, shapes and populations. Many of our urban centers—Boston, Charlotte, Chicago, Cincinnati, DC, Kansas City, Louisville, Memphis, New York City, Omaha, Philadelphia, Portland and St. Louis—straddle state borders. Different state capacities have contributed to higher taxes and compromised crisis responses. If we were starting with a blank slate—instead of a hardened byproduct of historical quirks and human error—we would design a far more efficient network of state governments.

Still, the number of states is not sacrosanct. The calls for adding states continue. Some areas seek statehood for full representation, like the District of Columbia and Commonwealth of Puerto Rico. Some seek secession for political purposes, like Northern California (State of Jefferson) and Austin, Texas. After President Obama’s re-election in 2012, secession petition campaigns were launched in all 50 states. We are willing to add states when an election doesn’t go our way. Why not reorganize states to improve our resilience for the future?

Our global competitors, like China, understand the importance of thinking and acting regionally, across states or provinces. According to the Council of State Governments, the US has only about 200 multi-state compacts or ventures, most of which with a narrow focus, such as an infrastructure project or a regulatory regime. A few recent compacts, such as the Northeast Regional Greenhouse Gas Initiative and Missouri-Kansas business relocation tax incentive control pact, have a broader scope.

In the US, interstate competition is far more common than interstate coordination. Fueled by the fear of losing jobs to another state, and manipulated by siting consultants, state governments offer large tax incentives, infrastructure grants and regulatory breaks to lure or retain employers. To illustrate, tax incentives, costing an estimated $45 to $90 billion per year, reduce future taxes, often with marginal benefits. As the W.E. Upjohn Institute recently reported, such incentives are often poorly targeted, too front-loaded, wasteful and unaccountable. Worse, there is scarce evidence that they significantly impact siting decisions.

Organized for Politics Not Results

State laws and capacities vary widely, but the basic structure of state government looks remarkably similar in all 50 states. And it has undergone few changes in the last century, even in the face of a world war, economic recessions, new technology and staggering global changes. Perhaps this inertia would be fine if the way we organized state government made sense, but it does not.

The structure of state government was designed for a vastly different time. When our nation was protected by two oceans. When public officials had months to respond to crises, not moments. When the concentration of power was a bigger concern than the inefficiency of diffusing power among many elected officials. This design has bequeathed us an executive branch with many elected statewide officials, scores of mandated agencies and hundreds of boards and commissions. An increasingly partisan judicial branch with elected judges. A myopic, politically-polarized legislative branch with two redundant chambers (except for Nebraska which has one).

The typical state executive branch has a fragmented, if not haphazard, organizational structure. The number of statewide elected officials defies common sense. All 50 states elect a Governor, the supposed chief executive officer, but most also elect officials who, in most corporate settings, would be appointed. Lieutenant Governor, Attorney General, Secretary of State, Treasurer, Labor Commissioner, Insurance Commissioner, Agriculture Commissioner, Auditor and Superintendent of Public Instruction. Setting aside the question of qualifications, electing so many officers dilutes managerial authority, coordination and accountability.

Most states have too many independent entities and most governors have excessive spans of control. To illustrate, after taking office in 2015, Arkansas Governor Hutchinson found over 200 agencies, boards and commissions, of which he directly supervised 42 cabinet agencies. In North Carolina, many functions, like financial management, are performed by multiple agencies. In virtually all states, boards and commissions are like archeological digs, with layers upon layers of new entities added to reward supporters, but few eliminated even when recognized as redundant or useless.

Whether politicians see statewide elected offices as launch pads for higher office or waiting rooms for retirement, the offices have become increasingly politicized. The Secretary of State is the most glaring example of how partisan politics have infected state governments (the Attorney General office may be a close second). Forty secretaries of state serve as chief election officials with broad discretion over election processes. Their decisions influence tight races (e.g., GOP Secretary of State Harris during Florida’s 2000 presidential election or GOP Secretary of State Kemp during his 2018 gubernatorial campaign). No other democracy allows this degree of comingling of partisanship and election administration.

The Judiciary’s Vanishing Independence

Most of us believe that justice should be impartial and understand that an independent judge is the cornerstone of an impartial judiciary. Arguably, the most significant factor in determining the independence of our judges is the manner in which we select them. So, how do our 50 states select judges?

States use different selection methods, even for different courts (e.g., supreme, appellate and trial). Still, there are essentially two kinds of state judicial selection processes—elective and appointive. Elections can be partisan or nonpartisan, and appointments gubernatorial, legislative or some combination thereof. Most appointive systems are merit-based to some degree. The Missouri Plan, the most popular appointive process, requires judges to be appointed from a pre-qualified list of nominees.

While many states use some kind of merit-based appointive process for selecting judges, most states use elective processes. Of the 147 state trial courts, for example, 73 have elected judges, 57 have appointed judges and 17 use a hybrid process. Elections—partisan or nonpartisan—subject the judiciary to special interests and voter impulses. Even states with appointive processes often subject their judges to the whims of the voters—and the attacks of special interests. The Missouri Plan, for example, requires judges to face a retention election long after they’re appointed to the bench.

The cost of judicial elections is high and getting higher. In 2020, millions were spent to influence Supreme Court races in Michigan, Ohio and Illinois. In Michigan, business and trial lawyer political action committees spent millions of dollars on judicial races. In Ohio, two Republican incumbent justices spent over $1 million on campaign ads and the winning Democrat received over half of his donations from the state Democratic Party. In Illinois, after spending $11 million, the incumbent Democratic Supreme Court Justice lost a retention election. This was the year’s most expensive judicial race, but the 2015 Pennsylvania Supreme Court race cost even more.

As state judiciaries have become more political, they have become less independent. Perhaps it should not surprise us when strict party-line Supreme Court votes become the norm or when a just verdict becomes a commodity for sale.

Our Fighting, Flailing State Legislatures

State legislatures are not structured to plan or attain progress. They are built to deliberate issues and pass bills, not anticipate or manage crises.

All 50 states but Nebraska have bicameral legislatures with largely redundant roles. Both chambers debate, approve (or kill) and amend the same legislation. Both chambers approve annual or biennial budgets. While some state legislatures have informal future caucuses, both chambers are far more adept at tackling narrow short-term matters than comprehensive long-term issues.

Since the 1960s and 1970s, when many state legislatures made changes to increase their clout (e.g., more professional staff and more frequent sessions), they have remained relatively unchanged in structure and capabilities. Some of their notable characteristics are highlighted below.

  • The lower chambers range in size from 40 to 400 with an average size of 115
  • The upper chambers range in size from 20 to 67 with an average size of 39
  • The ratio of lower to upper chamber seats ranges from 1.7:1 to 16.1 with an average ratio of 3.8:1
  • Nearly all lower chambers have two-year terms (only 5 states have four-year terms)
  • Most upper chambers have longer terms (32 have four-year terms and 7 use 2-4-4 term systems)
  • Most states have not instituted term limits (18 states have term limits and 32 states do not)
  • Only 13 states employ the filibuster

The total number of state legislators declined about five percent from 7,781 in 1960 to 7,383 today. Most legislators serve part-time. According to the National Conference of State Legislatures (NCSL), only ten states have full-time state legislatures (i.e., those that meet year-round).

All state legislatures employ support staff. According to the National Conference of State Legislatures (NCSL), there were 31,374 permanent and session legislative staff in 2015, down from 35,884 in 1996. Full-time legislatures generally have larger staffs than part-time legislatures. The 50 state legislatures average about 680 staff each, but the 10 full-time legislatures average 1,250 staff members each. The states with the largest (and often best paid) legislative staff units are California, Florida, New York, Pennsylvania and Texas.

In many states, legislative staff perform basic support functions for individual legislators. Some legislatures, for example, have district office staff. In many of the largest states, legislatures have professional, bipartisan staffing units that serve the entire legislature with such functions as budgeting, fiscal analysis, policy analysis and bill research and drafting. A few states, like  California, Florida, North Carolina and Texas maintain professional program evaluation or management audit staff. In the smallest states, like New Hampshire, legislators may have only one staffer. Few states (if any) have staffing units with robust long-term planning capabilities.

The most serious challenge facing state legislatures is their increasingly rigid partisanship. The ideological fever that has polarized and paralyzed Congress is spreading to many state legislatures. The November elections may have even widened these alarming divides and reduced the already-fading prospects of legislative collaboration, compromise and accountability for the months ahead.

Even our fierce battle against Covid-19 has been hijacked by legislative politics. After initially deferring to governors, many legislators have grown frustrated with their limited roles, filing legal challenges to gubernatorial authority and seeking statutory curbs on executive emergency powers. Covid-related tensions between governors and legislators have escalated in many states, particularly those with divided governments. In Wisconsin, GOP legislative leaders have successfully challenged the Democratic Governor’s authority to issue statewide pandemic orders and plans, yet failed to offer new policies, leaving the state in limbo.

Reform and the Next Stimulus Package

The next federal stimulus package offers a unique opportunity to link relief with reform. Last spring, Congress and the President provided nearly $3 trillion in aid to unemployed workers, businesses and state and local governments. Since then, efforts to enact another stimulus package have stalled. Democrats want more state and local government aid, but Republicans don’t want to “bail out” what they regard as inept public agencies.

There has been considerable good news about new vaccines, but their widespread distribution is months away. With more shutdowns, infections and deaths on the horizon, governors are begging for more federal aid now, before President-elect Biden is inaugurated. They need billions of dollars for distributing vaccine doses, improving testing and contact tracing, helping their citizens cope with the economic hardships to come and giving students the tools they need to navigate the challenges of remote education.

President-elect Biden has urged Congress to enact another stimulus bill and he is right to do so. But, to “lower the temperature” and unify the nation, he should do more than champion short-term aid. He should work with Congressional leaders and Governors to promote and seed long-term state government reform initiatives. A bold reassessment and reconstruction of state government is long overdue.

The author, Bob Melville, is the founder of Civic Way, a nonprofit dedicated to good government, and a management consultant with over 45 years of experience working with governmental agencies across the US.