A new study out last week raised an intriguing question: How free is your state?
With state lawmakers in Ohio considering tougher seat-belt enforcement for civilians and shorter prison stays for criminals as two ways to balance the $54 billion, two-year state budget, the question seems both relevant and timely.
Ohio was ranked 38th out of 50 states on the index of personal and economic freedom developed by the Mercatus Center of George Mason University. In other words, only 12 states are less free.
The study ranks New Hampshire, Colorado and South Dakota in a virtual tie for first place. It ranks New York and California among the least free.
The index is wide-ranging and comes from an individual rights perspective, which defies many philosophical boundaries of the mainstream Republican and Democratic party platforms.
For example, Ohio’s prohibition against same-sex marriage is viewed as a wash in the study. Why? Because all marriage requirements amount to unnecessary government intervention. (As do blood test requirements and marriage license waiting periods, by their measure.)
Ohio’s law allowing residents to carry concealed handguns? Good.
The state’s relatively lax marijuana laws? Also good.
By the researchers’ measure, seat belt laws and sobriety checkpoints “count as notable infringements on individual liberty.” The index also issued freedom demerits for alcohol regulations, including “blue laws” against Sunday sales and taxes on beer, wine and spirits. Open-container laws and cell phone driving bans are viewed as minor nuisances.
Ohio’s ranking in the study’s so-called “paternalism” category would presumably only worsen if lawmakers pass legislation allowing primary enforcement of the state’s seat belt requirement. As it is now, a driver can only be fined if pulled over for another offense.
State lawmakers in the past have been resistant to making the switch. But money talks, particularly in this historically bad economy, and Ohio can land $26 million in federal highway money if it complies.
A “yes” vote on primary seat belt enforcement might be offset on the freedom scale by allowing certain nonviolent offenders to do less time, earn early release credit faster, or serve time in community-based settings as opposed to prisons. These are among ways state prisons officials are proposing to cut costs and reduce overcrowding.
The Mercatus Center has a whole list of crimes that it views as “victimless” for which governments are penalized for imposing in the index. Those include many drug offenses for individuals over 18, violations of liquor laws, gambling and prostitution.
Also on their list of paternalistic government activities are: bicycle and motorcycle helmet laws, regulations requiring motorists to carry personal injury insurance, home- and private-school regulations, campaign finance rules and asset forfeiture laws that allow government to take property without a conviction of the owner.
Ohio is ranked 46th of 50 in the study’s personal freedom ranking, above only Rhode Island, New York, Illinois and, the lowest, Maryland. Alaska, Maine, New Mexico, Arkansas and Texas offer residents the most liberties in this area, the study found.
Amy Hanauer, executive director of Policy Matters Ohio, a nonprofit liberal think tank in Cleveland, said she finds the idea that New York is the nation’s least free state absurd.
She said the study appears to give high marks to states with particularly low taxes, such as Colorado.
“You can talk about freedom broadly – being able to practice the religion of your choice, speak the language you choose, dress the way you want. But to lump that in with the freedom from paying taxes is something I’ve always found troubling and not very persuasive,” she said.
“The public sector is what enables us to pursue many other freedoms in our lives,” she said, “by keeping us safe, keeping our water clean, and giving us the ability to know that we are not surrounded by people who are in desperate want, which can also affect our freedom.”
State Sen. Bill Seitz, a Cincinnati Republican, tended to agree with the study that Ohioans’ freedom is suffering. He noted Ohio has sanctioned red-light cameras, restricted payday lenders, passed a statewide smoking ban, and voted down legalized gaming all in the past year or two.
“The Republican Party and the state Legislature as a whole would be well-advised to promote a widely accepting message of individual freedom and individuality if they want to attract people and jobs to this state,” he said.
Ohio gets its highest marks – 29th of the 50 states – in the area of regulatory freedom. This category ranks states based on their labor and utility regulations, health insurance mandates, occupational licensing requirements, eminent domain laws, land and environmental regulations, and their systems for allowing residents to recoup legal damages.
Ohio ranks 40th for its fiscal freedom, which takes into account budget constraints and the size of a state’s government related to its private sector. South Carolina, New Hampshire and Colorado are the top three. New Yorkers have the least amount of fiscal freedom.
A state’s fiscal and regulatory freedom combine for an economic freedom score in the study. Ohio’s was 32nd.
The researchers – political scientists William Ruger of Texas State University and Jason Sorens of the State University of New York at Buffalo – note that no one area of the country nor political party appears consistently to offer citizens more freedom. Much has to do with state politics, a state’s social attitudes and ideological leanings and its institutional design.
Liberal states are more lenient on marijuana and same-sex partner laws, for example, but tougher on gun owners, home-schoolers, motorists and smokers. Conservative states also fell in the middle of the study’s pack. Mississippi, for example, has marijuana laws that are “a study in contradictions,” its taxes are high, and its liability system is one of the worst in the nation.
Moderate, centrist governments offer their residents the most freedoms, according to the study.
“As Americans grow richer in future years, quality of life will matter more to residence decisions, while the imperative of decent employment will decline by comparison,” they wrote.
By JULIE CARR SMYTH, AP Statehouse Correspondent
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