Washington State History Lessons

Lesson 4: Washington – Our State Government

When the original 13 colonies declared independence from Great Britain, won their freedom and wrote the Constitution to define the framework of the new country, they created a federal system of government.  With federalism, the federal government and state governments share power.  This sharing is not totally equal.  Whenever a state law conflicts with a federal law, the federal law has supremacy.  The writers of the Constitution wanted to ensure that there would be a balance between federal and state power.

Over the years, the U.S. added 37 more states, all quite different in history, geography, and resources. So what rights do these 50 states have?  The important powers that states have are called reserved powers and they are guaranteed by the 10th amendment.  These powers include the states’ rights to protect the health, safety, and welfare of their residents.  For example, states can create traffic laws, set punishments for crimes, create education systems, decide on minimum age for marriage, create and manage road and transportation systems, collect taxes on items sold in the state, and pass thousands of other laws that directly affect the lives of residents of each state.

We now have 50 states making up the United States.  Each state has its own constitution, but state constitutions are similar to the U.S. Constitution.  All states are organized with 3 branches of government similar to the federal government – legislative, executive, and judicial.  The head of the executive branch of each state is called a governor.  The current governor or executive head of Washington State is Governor Jay Inslee. He was first inaugurated in January 2013, and started his second term in January 2017.

State constitutions also define the relationships between the state and local city and county governments, voting and election laws, and the finances of the state.  Just as with the federal legislative branch, the state legislative branch is responsible for making laws, state laws.  Most states call their legislators state senators and state representatives, and these legislators represent all parts of the state.  The judicial branch of state government interprets state laws.  State court systems range from municipal courts handling traffic tickets and misdemeanors, to the state supreme court, which is the highest state court.  The state Supreme Court usually deals with state constitution issues and appeals on decisions from lower state courts.

It is important to understand state government because the decisions of state leaders and state elections impact each of us directly, daily.  For example, in the Fall 2012 elections, the people of Washington state approved initiatives legalizing marijuana for recreational purposes, same sex marriage, and the establishment of charter schools.  These are very important changes decided by the people of our state, for our state. Policies regarding education, transportation, business, health and safety, and our environment are generally formulated by state leaders with the input of local residents.  However, the Washington state constitution declares that the citizens of Washington state may directly propose changes in laws through the initiative process, and this is how the marijuana, same sex marriage, and charter schools initiatives were proposed and passed.  The initiative process of gathering enough signatures of support in order to get an issue placed in a state election is alive and very strong in the state of Washington.

Our state has a state government TV channel, TVW,  to keep everyone informed about issues in our state.  Here are 2 videos from TVW giving specific information about the history of our state Constitution and details about our legislative and voting process.


The Washington State Constitution (9 min)




Voting in Washington State (10 min)


Now go to the official Washington State website and explore the variety of information provided about our state and state government.

By keeping informed of state government issues, you can let your state leaders know how you feel about matters important to you and your family.  Your voice is important!

Sources Used

Turner, Mary J. Civics, Citizens in Action. Merrill Pub. Co, 1990.

Remy, Richard C, and Gordon P. Whitaker. Civics Today: Citizenship, Economics, & You. Glencoe/McGraw-Hill, 2003.


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Washington State History (Transitional Learning) by Whatcom Community College is licensed under a Creative Commons Attribution 4.0 International License, except where otherwise noted.

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