North Carolina state government is divided into three branches: executive, legislative, and judicial. These consist of the Council of State (led by the Governor), the bicameral legislature (called the General Assembly), and the state court system (headed by the North Carolina Supreme Court).
The General Assembly drafts and legislates the state laws of North Carolina, also known as the General Statutes. The General Assembly is a bicameral legislature, consisting of the North Carolina House of Representatives (formerly the North Carolina House of Commons until 1868) and the North Carolina Senate. The House has 120 members, while the Senate has 50.
North Carolina county government is the level of government that most directly impacts every citizen. County governments provide access to needed services, such as public and mental health care, schools, libraries and support to senior citizens and children in need. Counties establish important local laws (ordinances) and enforce laws that protect citizens from harmful behavior.
Counties are governed by an elected board of county commissioners ranging in size from three to nine commissioners. In most counties, commissioners serve four-year terms.
The Board of Commissioners
- sets the county property tax rate and adopts a balanced budget each year by June 30
- establishes county policies by adopting resolutions and ordinances. All counties use the council-manager form of government.
- is the only local board with the power to tax
- administer social services and public health directly within county departments using county employees. The NC system of human services is county-administered and state supervised.
- are statutorily required to build and maintain school facilities, although the buildings themselves are owned by the independently elected school
- contribute around 28 percent on average of their budgets to fund school classroom expenses.
- function as municipal governments to provide and regulate services for the health and well-being of their residents.
Other County policy/governing bodies
The Sheriff and Register of Deeds are elected officials with independent authority to adopt specific policies for their departments. Other independent or nearly independent local boards have responsibility for alcoholic beverage control, elections, mental health, public health and social services. These boards appoint directors and have the authority to make local policies.
School boards are separately elected by the citizens and have responsibility for education policies and setting the school system’s budget.
North Carolina Municipalities – cities, towns and villages – operate under charters granted by the General Assembly. In North Carolina municipalities do not have home rule, which means that the state legislature must grant the powers and authority to municipalities and authorize them to perform certain functions.
Municipalities are established to protect the citizens and provide residents of a particular area with urban services: water, sewer, police, streets, transportation, recreation, garbage collection and recycling, land use planning and fire protection. Municipalities are governed by an elected board. North Carolina mayors do not have veto power over council actions (with the exception of one city where the mayor has limited veto power). The mayor may or may not vote on matters before the council, again depending on the charter.
One of the major responsibilities of every municipal governing board is to adopt the annual municipal budget, which determines what services will be provided and at what level. By law, all North Carolina budgets must be balanced, and there is a state agency that provides oversight over municipal finances. The major sources of municipal revenues are the ad valorem property tax and local option sales taxes. User fees for services, such as water and sewer, support the infrastructure, operational and maintenance costs of the systems themselves.
District Court is a trial court with 41 districts. Elections of one or more judges to four-year terms are held in each district. Trial Courts, or District Courts, can be divided into four categories, civil, criminal, juvenile and magistrate. District Court hears civil cases such as divorce, custody, child support and cases involving less than $25,000, as well as criminal cases involving misdemeanors and infractions. The trial of a criminal case in District Court is always without a jury. The District Court also hears juvenile cases involving children under the age of 16 who are delinquent and children under the age of 18 who are undisciplined, dependent, neglected or abused. Magistrates accept guilty pleas for minor misdemeanors and for traffic violations, and accept waivers of trial for worthless-check cases, among other things.