Unity in Diversity? Maybe not: Some love, and some hate, Oklahoma’s high rank in freedom index

OKLAHOMA CITY – Speaker of the House T.W. Shannon said a new report pegging Oklahoma as the fifth freest state in the nation was “exciting news.” A spokesman for Gov. Mary Fallin commented the analysis from George Mason University’s Mercatus Center was “no surprise.” 

However, a former Democratic legislator who now runs the state chapter of the American Civil Liberties Union said progress on economic freedom could not offset the state’s “shortcomings in personal freedoms.” 

In other words, the report “Freedom in the 50 States: An Index of Personal and Economic Freedom: 2013 edition” was a conversation starter at and around the Oklahoma state Capitol on March 28, the date of its nationwide release.

In an interview at his Capitol office, Speaker Shannon said, “I think it is exciting news. It’s an affirmation of the direction we’ve taken since Republicans gained control of the state House of Representatives in 2004. This is affirmation of the pro-growth and liberty policies that have been put in place since then. 

“It sounds like the Mercatus Center and its scholars recognize that what we’re doing is on the right track. In terms of their recommendations, I believe we’re making progress.”

The Lawton Republican said the report will energize legislators to enact further reforms and boost the state’s emergence as home to business-friendly government and job-growing policies: “I am hopeful we will pass a reduction of the state income tax. Talk about expanding the boundaries of freedom – letting people keep more of their own money is a great way to do that.”

Pointing to one of the handful of critical points made about Oklahoma in the 233-page report by scholars William P. Ruger and Jason Sorens, Shannon told CapitolBeatOK, “I concur that we can do a better job of protecting individual property rights. In terms of asset management, liquidating some of the properties the state doesn’t need, returning those back to the private sector and for that matter onto the tax rolls.  I am proud to see this high ranking for Oklahoma and it motivates me to keep pushing.”

Asked what he would choose to get enacted into law if only one of the GOP House Caucus agenda items could be finished this year, he reflected, “Sometimes I’m too optimistic, maybe. “

Shannon contended, “I think the state income tax cut directly addresses this set of issues they looked at in the study. Fortunately, that seems to have great momentum right now. Letting people have or keep more of their own money, that seems to me like the best way to be free.”

He said, “I am hopeful to get a whole wave of new good laws passed that will improve our ranking in an analysis like this. On the House side we’ve advanced all of our significant agenda items, and I think we’ll get most of all of those through with the help of the Senate. I am very optimistic.” 

Responding to the state’s high ranking in the Mercatus study, Alex Weintz, spokesman for Gov. Mary Fallin, told CapitolBeatOK, “Oklahomans believe in small government, traditional values and perhaps most importantly, freedom. It’s no surprise that we rank highly in any index of personal and economic liberty.”

In the study’s blended look at regulatory, fiscal and personal liberties, the state moved over the decade 2001-2011 from 31st freest to fifth freest among the 50 states. The shift in public policy, the Mercatus scholars concluded, nearly equaled what occurred in North Dakota, which the analysis pegged as the most dramatic change over those ten years.

“In the governor’s office, we’re focused on continuing to expand upon the freedoms that Oklahomans enjoy, including the freedom to keep more of your hard earned dollars and the freedom to live and work without government interference, regulation, and bureaucracy,” Weintz said.

“These goals not only reinforce the natural rights of all Oklahomans granted under the Constitution, they’re also conducive to job creation, business retention, and greater prosperity for our citizens.”

A sharply different view of the Mercatus report came from former state Rep. Ryan Kiesel, the ACLU state president. He told CapitolBeatOK, “We must have different definition of freedom than the Mercatus Center. I hardly think that a state that routinely considers legislation and passes laws that interfere with a woman’s right to make healthcare decisions, openly discriminates against its LGBT citizens, and incarcerates over 26,000 of its people, many needlessly caught up in the failed war on drugs, is the fifth freest state in the nation.

“The study’s suggestion that Oklahoma’s shortcomings in personal freedoms are somehow offset by economic freedom also misses the mark. Try explaining that ranking to the one in four Oklahoma children who go to bed hungry each night or the over 100,000 Oklahomans without health insurance because of Gov. Fallin’s cold-hearted refusal to expand Medicaid.”

The analysis is drawing national attention, including a report from John Merline for Investor’s Business Daily. His examination of the prolific data and analysis from co-authors Ruger and Sorens “found a strong correlation between a state’s freedom ranking and migration, which means that Americans are gravitating toward states that have less-intrusive governments.”

He reported, “New York, for example, saw a net migration of -9.2% between 2000 and 2011, and California’s was -4.2%. In contrast, Tennessee gained 4.4%, and Oklahoma gained 1.3%.

“An IBD analysis of the data found that ‘red’ states — those voting for Republican presidential candidates in the past two elections — saw an overall net migration of 2.2%, while ‘blue’ states saw an overall average net migration of -0.3%.”

The analysts who prepared the study characterize themselves as libertarian or Classical Liberal. They provide, both within the report narrative and through references, a diverse bloc of information through which those with conflicting worldviews can weigh for themselves if the report’s conclusions are sound.

You may contact Patrick B. McGuigan at Patrick@capitolbeatok.com and follow us on Twitter: @capitolbeatok.