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Block grants

Grants of money from the federal government to states for programs in certain general areas rather than for specific kinds of programs

Categorical grants

Federal grants for specific purposes defined by federal law: to build an airport, for example, or to make welfare payments to low-income mothers. Such grants usually require that the state or locality put up money to "match" some part of the federal grants, though the amount of matching funds can be quite small


A municipal corporation or municipality that has been chartered by a state to exercise certain defined powers and provide certain specific

Conditions of aid

Federal rules attached to the grants that states receive. States must agree to abide by these rules in order to receive the grants

Confederation or confederal system

A political system in which states or regional governments retain ultimate authority except for those powers that they expressly delegate to a central government. The United States was a confederation from 1776 to 1787 under the Articles of Confederation


The largest territorial unit between a city and a town


The current effort to scale back the size and activities of the national government and to shift responsibility for a wide range of domestic programs from Washington to the states. In recent years these areas have included welfare, health care, and job training

Dillon's rule

A legal principle that holds that the terms of city charters are to be interpreted narrowly. Under this rule (named after a lawyer who wrote a book on the subject in 1911) a municipal corporation can exercise only those powers expressly given it or those powers necessarily implied by, or essential to the accomplishment of, these stated powers

Dual federalism

A constitutional theory that national government and the state governments each have defined areas of authority, especially over commerce


A political system in which ultimate authority is shared between a central government and state or regional governments

Federal regime

A political system in which local units of government have a specially protected existence and can make final decisions over some government activities

Federal system

A system in which sovereignty is shared so that on some matters the national government is supreme and on others the state, regional, or provincial government are supreme


Federal funds provided to states and localities. Grants-in-aid are typically provided for airports, highways, education, and major welfare services

Home-rule charter

A charter that allows the city government to do anything that is not prohibited by the charter or by state law


A procedure allowing voters to submit a propose law to a popular vote by obtaining a required number of signatures


Rules imposed by the federal government on the states as conditions for obtaining federal grants or requirements that the states pay the costs of certain nationally defined programs

Municipal corporation or municipality

A legal term for a city. It is chartered by the state to exercise certain powers and provide certain services

"Necessary and proper" clause

The final paragraph of Article I, section 8, of the Constitution, which authorizes Congress to pass all laws "necessary and proper" to carry out the enumerated powers. Sometimes called the "elastic clause" because of the flexibility that it provides to Congress


A theory first advanced by James Madison and Thomas Jefferson that the states had the right to "nullify" (that is, declare null and void) a federal law that, in the states' opinion, violated the Constitution. The theory was revived by John C. Calhoun of South Carolina in opposition to federal efforts to restrict slavery. The North's victory in the Civil War determined once and for all that the federal Union is indissoluble and that states cannot declare acts of Congress unconstitutional, a view later confirmed by the Supreme Court


A law passed and enforced by a city government

Police power

The power of a state to promote health, safety, and morals


A procedure, in effect in over twenty states, whereby the voters can vote to remove an elected official from office


The practice of submitting a law to a popular vote at election time. The law may be proposed by a voter's initiative or by the legislature

Revenue sharing

A law providing for the distribution of a fixed amount or share of federal tax revenues to the states for spending on almost any government purpose. Distribution was intended to send more money to poorer, heavily taxed states and less to richer, lightly taxed ones. The program was ended in 1986

School district

A special-district government responsible for administering public schools

Second-order devolution

The flow of power and responsibility from states to local governments


Supreme or ultimate political authority; a sovereign government is one that is legally and politically independent of any other government

Special-act charter

A charter that denies the powers of a certain named city and lists what the city can and cannot do

Special-district government or authority

A local or regional government with responsibility for some single function such as administering schools, handling sewage, or managing airports

Third-order devolution

The use of nongovernmental organizations to implement public policy

Town or township

A subunit of county government in many eastern and Midwestern states

Unitary system

A system in which sovereignty is wholly in the hands of the national government so that subnational political units are dependent on its will

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