Want freedom? Leave CA for South Dakota, report says

The state budget has a $10.8 billion hole in it.

It's June, but yesterday it was 53 degrees and raining in the Bay Area.

And now, just to make us feel even worse about the Golden State, here comes a study by social scientists at the Mercatus Center at George Mason University in Arlington, Va.

They say that California ranks 48th in the nation -- that is, third from dead last -- for having policies and laws that adversely "affect individual freedoms in the economic, social and personal spheres."

If you want to be free, leave Lotus Land for New Hampshire or South Dakota, say the report's authors, professors William Ruger of Texas State University and Jason Sorens of the University at Buffalo.

People there face lower taxes, fewer rules and far less governmental hassling than Californians, their study reports. New York and New Jersey are the only places in the country where life is more restrictive, they say.

"Mercatus" means "market" in Latin. The Mercatus Center "works to advance knowledge about how markets work to improve our lives," its website says.

The professors who wrote the analysis view the world through a libertarian lens. They rank the states on a long list of policies and laws.

States that spend and tax a lot are downgraded on the authors' fiscal policy scale. States with high minimum wages and tough land use controls get a lower score for regulatory policy.

On the other hand, states that do little to regulate guns, marijuana, gambling, prostitution and seat belt use score high marks on the "paternalism" scale, according to a description of the methodology. Data on abortion rights, the death penalty for convicted killers and overall incarceration rates didn't figure in the ratings.

"California not only taxes and regulates its economy more than most other states," the authors write, "it also aggressively interferes in the personal lives of its citizens."

They criticize California's state government for taxing and spending too much and for hiring too many state workers. The state also gets low marks for requiring employers to provide short-term disability coverage and paid family leave.

The Golden State gets good marks for making same-sex marriage legal and for easing penalties for marijuana possession. But those are offset by low scores for California's tough controls on guns and cigarettes.

New Hampshire -- the state motto is "Live Free or Die" -- gets high scores because of low taxes and low government spending. Its gun laws are among the most liberal in the country, though carrying a gun in your car still requires a permit, the authors write.

South Dakota scored high marks for low taxes and little land use regulation. It was downgraded slightly because of tough marijuana laws and its ban on Internet gambling.

"Although we hope we have demonstrated that some states provide freer environments than others, it would be inappropriate to infer that the freest states necessarily enjoy a libertarian streak, while others suffer from a statist mentality," the authors write.

On the board of the Mercatus Center is a prominent Californian – Edwin A. Meese III, former U.S. attorney general and adviser to President Reagan. In 1964, when he was an Alameda County prosecutor, Meese orchestrated the mass arrests of UC Berkeley demonstrators during the Free Speech Movement protests, as the writer Greil Marcus has recalled.

The center's website includes individual state profiles. There's also a "personal freedom calculator." That allows you to see how California's ranking might improve based on proposed policy changes.

For example, if California got rid of gun control laws, its ranking would rise from 48th to 39th. Cutting the cigarette tax to a dime per pack -- it's now 87 cents -- would nudge us up another notch, to 38th overall.

Story courtesy of our media partners at California Watch (A Project of the Center for Investigative Reporting)

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