LET freedom ring!
In Oklahoma it's ringing loud and clear, according to an analysis by researchers at George Mason University's Mercatus Center. The report's authors, William P. Ruger and Jason Sorens, ranked Oklahoma as the fifth-freest state in their libertarian-leaning dissection of fiscal, regulatory and personal policy.
At the top of the list is North Dakota, followed by South Dakota, Tennessee and then New Hampshire. The dregs are — no great surprise — New York, California and New Jersey, liberal strongholds known for choking their residents with taxes and regulations.
Oklahoma placed 31st in the Mercatus Center freedom rankings in 2001. The jump to No. 5 during the next decade marked the greatest movement of any state save North Dakota. Republicans in Oklahoma are sure to note that it was 2004 when the GOP took control of the state House of Representatives, with the Senate going to Republican control a few years later.
The report offers considerable fodder for policymakers to consider. For example, those pushing for another reduction in the top income tax rate might be reluctant to acknowledge that the authors feel Oklahoma already enjoys very low taxes (7.4 percent of personal income). Those looking for continued ways to trim spending might be buoyed by the news that according to Mercatus, Oklahoma “state and local governments have bloated payrolls amounting to 16.5 percent of the private workforce.”
However, the authors recommended that in addition to cutting spending on government workforce, the state reduce spending on its highways. Oklahoma has finally begun making investments in its roads and bridges after too many years of doing the opposite.
The study hit on a familiar complaint when it said Oklahoma has far too many occupational license requirements. It gave the state middling grades on freedom from lawsuit abuse, health insurance (which looked at such things as mandates) and utility deregulation. The authors said the state's eminent domain laws needed to be stronger, although that strikes us as an overstatement; Oklahoma hasn't been home to eminent domain abuses that many states feared following the 2005 U.S. Supreme Court ruling that gave governments permission to take non-blighted private property for potential future economic development.
Oklahoma got its lowest scores for personal freedoms, ranking 31st. In sizing those up, the authors cited (among other things) limited gun control, limited smoking bans and the need to reform asset forfeiture rules. They also said arrests for victimless crimes were well above the national average, which hurt Oklahoma's score. “Reforming this rate to the national mean would have raised Oklahoma's personal freedom ranking from 31st to 13th,” they said.
This is an area others have preached about during the past several years, as Oklahoma's prison population has swollen. Nobody wants truly dangerous men and women to bypass prison or serve sentences that aren't in line with their crimes. But the state locks up an inordinate number of nonviolent offenders for long stretches, and many policymakers have been loath to entertain the idea of approaching corrections differently. This helps explain why, as recently as a few weeks ago, a Department of Corrections official said the inmate count is up again this year and the agency is running a $13 million deficit for the first eight months of the fiscal year.
The state is on the right track in many areas. Its No. 5 ranking in this freedom study is something to cheer. But corrections is one place where much work remains.