By Kirsten Adshead | Wisconsin Reporter
MADISON – Wisconsinites’ level of freedom grew slightly throughout the first decade of the millennium yet compares poorly with most other states, according to a new report from the Mercatus Center.
Mercatus is a free-market think tank based at George Mason University near Washington, D.C.
That doesn’t mean, however, that it only gives a thumbs-up to staunchly conservative policies.
“While the United States has made great strides toward respecting each individual’s rights regardless of race, gender, age, or sexual preference, certain other groups face growing threats to their interests in some jurisdictions,” according to the report. “These include smokers, people who want to build or buy affordable housing, people who want to practice a trade without paying onerous examination and education costs, and so on.”
Regarding civil unions for gay couples, for example, “We do reward states that have that particular legal option available, said co-author Jason Sorens, who added, “We would think it should be left up to the states to decide their legal regime in regard to gay marriage.”
But also, according to the report, “Wisconsin’s labor market freedom, occupational freedom, health insurance freedom, and liability system are mediocre. It is not (yet) a right-to-work state, but has avoided mandating a minimum wage above the federal average or requiring employers to buy short-term disability insurance.”
Wisconsin’s overall freedom score rose slightly between 2001 and 2011, but it still ranks 38th among the states, says the Mercatus report.
Among the personal-freedom hits for Wisconsinites, according to the report, is “almost the strictest campaign finance laws,” an idea that garners skepticism from the head of the Wisconsin Democracy Campaign, which tracks election-related spending.
“If Wisconsin has some of the strictest campaign finance laws in the country today, that says a lot about how weak laws are elsewhere, considering how meaningless our laws have become,” said Mike McCabe, the Democracy Campaign’s executive director.
“Wisconsin used to have some of the nation’s strongest campaign finance laws,” McCabe said. “While most of them are still on the books, they have largely fallen into disrepair. Many of them are downright obsolete. The laws limiting campaign contributions have been poked full of holes and now can easily be circumvented.”
A full Mercatus analysis of Gov. Scott Walker’s policies, however, will have to wait.
The report is based on U.S. Census data through Dec. 31, 2010 – days before Walker took office. So it’s really an analysis of states’ policies as of two years ago.
Although Mercatus hasn’t officially evaluated Walker’s policies, the think tank applauds the tax savings that have resulted from Act 10, the controversial law passed in 2011 that significantly curtailed collective bargaining powers for most unionized public workers in Wisconsin.
Things such as Act 10 “are likely to improve Wisconsin’s rank in the next edition, but it’s hard to say just yet,” said Will Ruger, who co-authored the Mercatus report.
Other Walker policies, however, may lower Wisconsin’s ranking, such as his push for expanded DNA collections for people charged with felonies.
This is the third edition of Mercatus’ “Freedom in the 50 States” report, which “examines state and local government intervention across a wide range of policy categories — from tax burdens to court systems, from eminent domain laws to occupational licensing and from homeschooling regulation to drug policy.”
Among the policy recommendations the report proposes in Wisconsin:
— reduce the income tax burden while continuing to cut back spending through cuts in government employment and public employee benefits.
— pass a right-to-work law, whenever political conditions so allow.
— reform tobacco and marijuana regulations, using the state’s alcohol-friendly beer, wine and spirits regulations as a model.
It’s clear, however, that some of those recommendations will be a no-go with some Wisconsinites, even with state government leadership.
The GOP-led Legislature, for instance, has made no attempt to push for right-to-work legislation this session, and Walker himself has said a right-to-work bill would be a distraction from his other priorities.
Wisconsinites themselves seem to be split – along ideological lines – over whether freedom has improved or declined during the first two years of Walker’s administration.
“Depends on what freedoms you are referring to. Religions=less, 2nd amendment freedoms … at least we are able to carry (concealed weapons).” – Heather A Zampack-Townsend
“We have more freedom within our state, but we need our state Senate & Assembly to follow suit with other states & pass 10th Amendment nullification legislation.” – Rick Anderson
“Much less in schools, in access, in not know(ing) when an old west shoot out might happen in the streets because some yahoo has a gun, in less jobs in Wisconsin … “ Andy Harrolle-Iopota
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