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TN History for Kids

Middle Three: Three branches of government

Republicans who serve in the Tennessee House
of Representatives pose in their work clothes
PHOTO: Tennessee House Republican Caucus

Tennessee's government is set up very much like the U.S. government. If you've learned one, you've pretty much learned both of them.

And, much like the U.S. government, Tennessee's government has three branches: the executive, legislative, and judicial.

The Tennessee State Senate convenes for
business

The legislative branch of Tennessee government makes the laws. It consists of the House and Senate, just like the U.S. government.

The executive branch of Tennessee government enforces the laws and runs the day-to-day operations of the state.

The governor is the head of the executive branch of government. Tennessee's current governor is Bill Haslam, although a new governor will be elected in 2018.

Janice Holder takes the oath as Chief Justice
of the Tennessee Supreme Court

The judicial branch of government interprets the laws -- which means they decide exactly what the laws mean when people don't agree on them. They also run the courts.

Like the judiciary branch of the U.S. government, the state judiciary branch is headed by a supreme court (however there are nine judges in the U.S. Supreme Court and only five in the Tennessee Supreme Court).

How it works

Does some of this sound complicated? Here's an example of how things might happen:

Let's say that a member of the Tennessee State Senate wants school libraries to have more books and wants the state to pay for them. He or she proposes a law to spend more of the state's tax money on books for school libraries. The bill gets passed by the House and Senate and becomes law.

Visitors tour the Tennessee State Capitol

The governor and the people who work for him enforce the law the best way they know how. That's the job of the executive branch. So they start sending more money to school libraries like the one in your town to buy books.

But whenever you spend lots of money on new things, there are arguments.

Let's say, for instance, that some parts of the state complain that they aren't getting all the money that they are supposed to get under the new law. They might file a lawsuit in court to challenge the way that the law is being enforced.

That lawsuit might go all the way to the Tennessee Supreme Court, which might change the way all the school library book money is being spent.

Three more points about Tennessee state government:

Governor Haslam signs a bill into law. To his left is
Representative Steve McDaniel.
PHOTO: Office of Governor Haslam

* The structure of Tennessee's government is not dictated by the federal government. Tennessee's citizens could, if they chose, change the state constitution so that we had only one lawmaking body instead of two (Nebraska has only one lawmaking body).

* Tennessee has a citizen-legislature; to serve in the House or Senate is a part-time position. Lieutenant Governor Randy McNally (Oak Ridge) is a pharmacist. Representative Bill Dunn (Knoxville) is an "arborist," which means he cuts down or trims trees for a living.

* The struggle over the "balance of power" between the three branches of government is constant. It is not unusual for the courts to declare a new law passed by the Tennessee General Assembly to be unconstitutional. That means that the law can't be enforced.

So now we know what government does and how it runs. But how is it paid for? Click here to find out.