High 2: The Department of What?

The Tennessee Department of Transportation paves roads


We’re going to give simple explanations of what state government departments do.

Note the use of the word “simple.” These summaries give you a good starting point. If you want a more detailed explanation, click on the link to be taken to each department’s web page. Keep in mind that each department is headed up by a commissioner, and all the commissioners make up the governor’s cabinet.

First the easy ones:

* The Department of Education administers K through 12 schools.

* The Department of Correction runs the prison system.

State troopers work for the Tennessee Department of Homeland Security IMAGE: TN Dept of Homeland Security


* The Department of Transportation builds and maintains roads.

* The Department of Revenue collects taxes.

* The Department of Safety and Homeland Security employs all the state troopers.

That wasn’t so hard, was it? Now it gets a little more complicated:

* The Department of Health enforces health regulations. (Needless to say, the COVID-19 pandemic made 2020 a very challenging year for the Tennessee Department of Health!)

A park ranger at Cumberland Mountain State Park (part of the TN Department of Environment and Conservation) gives a tour to some teachers.

* The Department of Environment and Conservation enforces environmental regulations and runs state parks.

* The Department of Agriculture enforces agricultural regulations and administers state forests (which are different than state parks).

* The Department of Labor and Workforce Development enforces labor laws and operates programs that train Tennessee workers.

The Department of Tourism produces this magazine that is given away for free to try to get people to visit Tennessee

* The Department of Tourist Development encourages people to visit Tennessee.

There are actually 12 other departments of state government, but we’re not going to go over those because we think your brain is full.

By the way, state government doesn’t have to be organized this way. Over the years the number of government departments has greatly increased; in 1939 state government had only ten departments, and governors are frequently merging departments and creating new ones. When one of you becomes governor in a few years, no doubt you won’t be able to resist the urge to rearrange things.

Before we move on, let’s answer an important question: Why are different state government departments needed to enforce different kinds of laws? Why can’t the state troopers and your local police take care of that by themselves?

Because the world is too complicated.

This limestone quarry is the type of business that would have to get environmental permits to operate.

Let’s take environmental regulations, for example. To protect streams and rivers from pollution, there are state laws restricting the quality of water that a company discharges from a pipe that runs off its property. These regulations are enforced in two ways: One, the company has to get a discharge permit that allows them to operate, and, two, the state sends inspectors to make sure that the water leaving the company’s property meets environmental regulations.

This is a completely different kind of law enforcement than arresting people for murder or for speeding. It requires specialists, often with a college degree in that field, and a special department.

Regulations from the Department of Labor and
Workforce Development are usually posted on
bulletin boards of large companies such as this one.

The same rule applies to health regulations (enforced by the Department of Health), agricultural regulations (enforced by the Department of Agriculture), and labor laws (enforced by the Department of Labor and Workforce Development).

So now we’re really learning about state government. Pat yourself on the back, because this is pretty heavy stuff.

This whole time, we’ve been talking about the executive branch of government — the one presided over by the governor. Now we’re going to shift to the legislative branch.

Click here to move on.