By PAULA TRACY, InDepthNH.org
MANCHESTER – So what is the “secret sauce” in the “Live Free or Die” state of New Hampshire, which has again bubbled to the top of the rankings among the 50 states for its economic, social and political freedoms, according to the Cato Institute?
According to Republican Gov. Chris Sununu, who is not seeking another term, a few factors are local control and local civic engagement which grow the government from the bottom up.
Sununu also said the Education Freedom Accounts are “political winners” which he hopes to see grow here, and said it is about the kids, not the system.
The Washington-based think tank, whose mission is to advance solutions based on principles of individual liberty, free markets and peace, just completed the 2023 “Freedom in the 50 States.”
Authors of the book, scholar William Ruger of Great Barrington, Mass., and Jason Sorens of Amherst, founder of the Free State Project, gathered with Sununu Thursday for a celebratory beer and a talk about what makes New Hampshire different, with an audience of about 75 people at Stark Brewing Company in Manchester.
Not everyone agrees with Sununu or the Cato Institute on what makes New Hampshire special.
Colin Booth, spokesman for the New Hampshire Democratic Party, was critical of the report.
“The whole report is just cheerleading for conservative politics,” Booth said. “It is incredibly telling that women’s reproductive freedoms weren’t taken into account in the rankings.”
Booth was referring to Sununu signing the state’s first abortion ban in modern history, eliminating access to abortion at or after 24 weeks.
Booth was also critical of the controversial Education Freedom Accounts. “This voucher scheme is incredibly unpopular with Granite Staters. The only freedom it allows is freedom from standards and accountability.”
About the book’s co-author Jason Sorens, Booth said he founded the Free State Project which is “just another conservative wing of the GOP. Jason Sorens unleashed the Free State Project extremists on the state of New Hampshire and his legacy speaks for itself.”
Booth called Sununu “a conservative extremist in sheep’s clothing. Look at his record on abortion, on education, on the environment. On any number of priorities for Granite Staters, he has failed.”
The book examines 230 policy variables in the 50 states – everything from local tax burdens to occupational licensing restrictions, housing rules, even raw milk sales, marijuana legalization and other measures.
Attending Thursday’s event were Republican gubernatorial candidates and former U.S. Sen. Kelly Ayotte and former New Hampshire Senate President Chuck Morse of Salem, along with many of the leaders of the Republican and libertarian-leaning movement in the state, including House Majority Leader Jason Osborne of Auburn, a champion of marijuana legalization.
Sununu said the “secret sauce” for the state is local control, and a ground up approach to civic engagement and an extremely representative and transparent legislative structure.
The report from the think tank included “The Good, The Bad and the Ugly” about New Hampshire from its perspective indicating its “good” was an overall low tax burden of 7.4 percent, well below the national average, low government debt, more progressive state laws on housing, including allowing accessory dwelling units on homes and having a Housing Appeals Board, a broad scope and practice for health professionals, low lawsuit levels, and school choice, among others.
But the bad included state-run and regulated liquor stores, high taxes on tobacco products and state-mandated direct access to health care specialists, possibly leading to higher costs and premiums. And the “Ugly” included no so-called right-to-work law and exclusionary zoning.
Sununu conceded that New Hampshire does control liquor sales, but “we’re really good at that” and said marijuana legalization for adult sales is coming.
“We are looking at that,” he said. “I’m not a huge believer in the idea. I understand that it is inevitable. And I think we have an opportunity to actually do it right.”
Sununu laughed when he said he noticed on the Cato Institute’s metrics, that flexibility on marijuana was more important than flexibility on liquor, “which I thought was pretty interesting. But look, that is just the way a lot of things are going. So there is an opportunity there to make sure it is done right.”
Sununu said the focus is best when the government concentrates on the economy and growing businesses to prosper.
In terms of economic freedom which included both fiscal and regulatory data, on this study New Hampshire came out on top, with Florida, South Dakota, Tennessee and Georgia rounding out the top five. Last was New York and the bottom five included New Jersey, Oregon, California and Hawaii.
Sununu touted the importance of transparency, here, in terms of fiscal policy.
“We don’t really have fiscal shenanigans in this state because there is so much transparency, because the public can engage in the process. It doesn’t mean we are perfect by any means. But every two weeks every contract has to come (to the Executive Council) and people are there asking ‘why weren’t there multiple bidders, what is this?’ All the questions are there for the public to see. We just don’t do a whole lot behind closed doors, so I think that is a part of the difference as well,” Sununu said.
Ruger, a political economist, noted he and Sorens did another study several years ago for the Goldwater Institute and found that citizen legislatures rather than professional legislatures are more focused on freedoms.
“You don’t have a rise in the professional class,” with 400 House members being paid $100 plus mileage,” Ruger noted.
A link to the book is here. https://www.cato.org/books/freedom-50-states-0
Reporter Nancy West contributed to this report.