School choice, low taxes land Arizona in state freedom rankings’ top 10

Arizona’s low tax rates and regulatory burden helped it do well in a ranking of state freedoms but critics took issue with some measures, including gun and school laws. (Photo Nick Free,Province of British Columbia/Creative Commons)

WASHINGTON – Arizona’s school choice laws, liberal land-use policies and rules for concealed-carry of guns combined to help boost the state into the top 10 in a “Freedom in the 50 States” report released Thursday.

The biennial report by the Cato Institute rates states on 230 variables, with the most weight given to fiscal policy, regulatory policy and personal freedom. Arizona was No. 9 overall – unchanged from the last report in 2016 – and first when it came to educational freedom, the report said.

Jason Sorens, who co-authored the study, said Arizona was among the leaders nationally in school vouchers and school choice.

“It’s pretty easy to homeschool and open a private school,” Sorens said.

Sorens said Cato worked closely on the Arizona portion of the report with the Goldwater Institute. Goldwater commended the study on its “In Defense of Liberty” blog but added that the state shouldn’t rest on its laurels, “especially with growing threats to the state’s well-being looming on the horizon.”

But not everyone in Arizona was pleased with the findings in the report.

The Arizona chapter of March for Our Lives, the student-led group formed in response to the Marjory Stonema Douglas High School shootings, was sharply critical of the claim that a concealed-carry law is a good thing.

In a prepared statement, the group said data from the Gun Violence Archive and the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention show that someone in Arizona is shot and killed every nine hours and a child is shot every five days. The group said Arizona “continues to be one of the largest illegal exporters of guns to Mexico and surrounding states.”

“While we may be ranked one of the most ‘free’ states, we are also one of the … deadliest,” the group’s statement said. “According to Giffords Law Center we are the 15th deadliest in the nation.”

And Dana Naimark, the president and CEO of the Children’s Action Alliance, said the report’s educational “definition of freedom doesn’t mean a whole lot to kids.”

“It’s kind of a strange benchmark from the perspective of a child,” said Naimark. She pointed to the state’s traditionally low school rankings and poor teacher pay that led to walkouts earlier this year to demand more school support.

“The importance of education to children is having access and quality,” Naimark said, adding that the Cato ranking “doesn’t hold true if the cost is a huge teacher crisis.”

But school choice was not the only thing Arizona had going in its favor in the report’s eyes. Sorens praised the state’s relatively low overall tax burden, with the report saying that taxes make up 8.7 percent of adjusted personal income.

-Cronkite News graphic by Daniel Perle

He also pointed to the 2006 Property Rights Protection Act, passed by voters as Proposition 207, as a positive step for land-use laws in Arizona. The law requires that local governments reimburse property owners for any decrease in property value caused by a change in planning and zoning rules. Cato ranked the state 21st in the country in the land-use category.

The state was lauded for having low barriers for entry into industries – it is one of 15 states that does not require a certificate of need for hospitals to open. Arizona ranked highly in alcohol freedom, since it is one of the only states in the country to allow wine shipments directly to people’s homes, Sorens said.

Arizona’s legalization of medical marijuana in 2010 and declining rates of victimless crime arrests boosted its ranking on personal freedom. But while the state was No. 2 for victimless crime arrests, it ranked 42nd for its overall incarceration rates.

The state’s worst score came in its regulation of cable, which the report said is so cumbersome that Arizona is in 46th place in that category.

Reducing controls on cable service was one of three recommendations targeted by the report, which also said Arizona should legalize for-profit casinos and give locals greater flexibility to create municipalities and determine their levels of city services.

Sorens was particularly critical of Proposition 206, which will gradually increase Arizona’s minimum wage until it reaches $12 an hour in 2020, a change that he said could lead to increased unemployment among young people and unskilled workers.

And the Goldwater Institute took aim at the upcoming Invest in Education Act, a ballot initiative this November that would raise income taxes to fund education.

“Where government grows, increases spending, takes on debt, raises taxes and adds regulations, our liberties are limited,” the institute blog post said.

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