FROM A (abolishing the death penalty) to Z (zero tolerance for underage drinking), individual states have created policies that in time were adopted by other states. More than any other, California is the state with a reputation for policymaking that leads the nation — and not always for the best.
Oklahoma is a mid-range state, according to an assessment by two University of Iowa political scientists. We're more of a follower than an innovator, but then so are most states. California is the most innovative state; Mississippi is the least innovative.
Frederick Boehmke and Paul Skinner built a database of 189 policies adopted by states between 1912 and 2009. They created an “adoption rate” to measure how quickly or slowly the states latch on to policymaking trends.
Oklahoma was the first state to adopt term limits for legislators, in 1990. A number of states did likewise, but some term-limit laws were later repealed and others were nixed by courts. Only 15 states have such a law now.
Michigan was the first state to abolish capital punishment. That happened in 1846. A century and a half later, Oklahoma still executes inmates and is hardly alone is resisting the abolition movement.
The state has been much more receptive to other policies that originated elsewhere. The list includes unrestricted absentee voting, graduated driver's licenses, “English Only” laws and charter schools.
Judging by the number of states that have adopted the policies of others, the most popular policies on the books today include zero tolerance for underage drinkers, allowing breast feeding in public and mandatory motorcycle helmet laws. Yet Oklahoma still allows adults to ride motorbikes without a helmet. Among the least-adopted policies nationwide are Election Day voter registration, legislative term limits and bottle deposit laws.
California is celebrated and sometimes castigated for its “innovative” policies on safety, health and the environment. In California, it's illegal to smoke in a car containing a minor or to talk on a hand-held cell phone or send text messages while driving. Oklahoma has relatively liberal smoking laws and has yet to take seriously the problem of driving while phoning or texting. The state was slow to require seat belt usage for adults.
Sometimes the threat of federal sanctions forces action, as was the case with seat belts. This is a state that recoils at restricting the size of sodas but not at forcing lawmakers to retire after 12 years in office.
Rather than seeing Oklahoma's late adoption (or non-adoption) of policies in other states as a sign of backwardness, we see it as a sign of freedom. The state should restrict texting while driving and not because other states have done so but because it makes sense. The latest policy adoption choice came with state health care exchanges and Medicaid expansion under Obamacare. On Monday, Gov. Mary Fallin said no to both.
One marketing theory proffers a hierarchy ranging from innovators and “early adopters” to laggards, with most people falling in between. The people who line up to buy the latest iPhone model are early adopters. Those who've yet to own any smart phone are laggards.
In the policy world, Oklahoma isn't an early adopter or a laggard. It's right where the majority of states are in exercising their right to lead on some policies and lag on others.