The Texas Model of relatively less spending, no personal income tax, and sensible regulation continues to support improved economic freedom with more opportunities to flourish. But there’s room for improvement for the state recently ranked as the fourth most free nationwide.
Canada’s Fraser Institute recently released the Economic Freedom of North America 2021 report that scores states for economic freedom based on government spending, taxation, and labor market regulation. Economic freedom essentially is the freedom for people to use their property with minimal government interference. These scores are based on the latest available data for all jurisdictions in 2019, so they don’t include the effects of the shutdowns yet.
Based on these scores, they separate states into four quartiles. In the most-free quartile, the average per-capita income was 7.5% above the national average while the least-free quartile was 1% below it. Additionally, people tend to be richer when economic freedom is greater.
Economic freedom is essential to human flourishing.
Texas was the most economically free state in 1981 when the first score was reported. This was when the state had more conservative Democrats before party realignment with a political trifecta—control of the governor, house, and senate. But that ranking fell as they started to impose big-government policies that lowered it to seventh in 1991. The Lone Star State then dropped further and bottomed out at ninth in 1993. Through the late 90s and early 2000s, the more progressive Democrat-controlled House continued to restrict economic freedom which kept our ranking stubbornly low.
The first Republican trifecta was in 2003. The new leadership helped weather the storm of a fiscal crisis during a severe recession by overcoming a $10 billion shortfall through spending restraint. This new direction for limited government helped improve the ranking to fourth in 2006, rising to as high as second in 2008, while falling to no lower than fifth since then. This is quite impressive given these rankings can move depending on the relative ranking of states, and other states attempted to follow what worked in Texas.
The stronger commitment to the more successful Texas Model in recent years with a more conservative Republican trifecta especially since 2015 has helped support more economic freedom and prosperity.
Comparatively, Texas’ economic freedom ranks considerably better than other large states like California’s 49th, which has ranked in the bottom five states since 2002, and New York’s 50th, which has been in the bottom three states since 1981. Texas trails New Hampshire, Tennessee, and Florida, but the state’s score of 7.75 is near the leaders. It is only 0.08 points behind the top-ranked New Hampshire and 0.03 behind third-ranked Florida.
This comparison indicates the difference in governing philosophy.
For example, more conservative Texas and Florida rank 13th and 6th best, respectively, in state and local spending per capita compared with progressive California and New York ranking 48th and last, respectively. Of course, lower spending means less taxation, as Texas and Florida rank fourth and eighth best, respectively, in state and local tax burden per capita, while California and New York rank 43rd and last, respectively.
And Texas and Florida are right-to-work states while California and New York are not. Texas continues to reduce barriers to work by removing unnecessary and harmful regulations, especially relating to occupational licensing—though there’s still too many. And Texas keeps its minimum wage at the federal mandate of $7.25 per hour, though the real minimum wage is always $0.
These measures matter for human flourishing when you consider Texas has a lower cost of living (ranks 15th lowest in the state compared with Florida ranking 32nd, California 49th, and New York 48th) and better labor market outcomes, including lower income inequality and poverty.
Less economic freedom contributes to people fleeing California and New York for greener pastures. Over the last decade, the populations have grown more than two times faster in Texas and Florida compared with California and New York, and Texas’ population has grown 9.3% faster than Florida’s.
But Texas needs improvement.
One area is excessive local property taxes from too much government spending. The Texas Legislature provided limited relief this year, but much more is needed.
The state should build on its recent success of passing the strongest state spending limit in the nation this year by using use surplus funds to cut school district property taxes. And lawmakers should use the same approach for other local governments. These actions, along with redesigning the tax system, can result in eliminating property taxes by 2033.
By continuing to build on past successes and remove government barriers, Texas can be the most economically free state to best let Texans prosper.
Vance Ginn, Ph.D.