#27 Wisconsin

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The overall freedom ranking is a combination of personal and economic freedoms.

From 2012

State Facts

Net Migration Rate (?) -0.9 % 
Personal Income Growth (?) 2.07 %
How does the freedom ranking relate to these?


For all the talk about Scott Walker’s “radical reforms,” we find that economic freedom has been more or less constant since 2011, relative to other states, whereas personal freedom has grown substantially.

The Badger State has relatively high taxes, which have fallen only marginally since 2012. State taxes are projected to be 5.8 percent of personal income in FY 2015, while local taxes have risen since FY 2000 and now stand at 4.4 percent of income, above the national average. Wisconsinites have ample choice among local governments, with more than two and a half effective competing jurisdictions per 100 square miles. State and local debt has fallen somewhat since FY 2007, and government employment and subsidies are below average. Overall, Wisconsin has seen definite improvement on fiscal policy since 2010, but it hasn’t yet reached the national average.

On regulatory policy, we see little change in recent years, although our index does not yet take account of the 2015 right-to-work law. Land-use freedom is a bit better than average; local zoning has not gotten out of hand, though it has grown some. The state has a renewable portfolio standard, but it is not high. Apart from its right-to-work law, Wisconsin was already reasonably good on labor-market policy. Cable and telecommunications have been liberalized. Occupational licensing increased dramatically between 2000 and 2006; still, the state is about average overall on extent of licensure. Nurse practitioners enjoy no independent practice freedom. Insurance freedom is generally good, at least for property and casualty lines. The state has a price-gouging law, as well as controversial, strictly enforced minimum-markup laws for gasoline and general retailers. The civil liability system is above average and improved significantly since 2010, due to a punitive damages cap.

Wisconsin is below average on criminal justice policies, but it has improved substantially since 2010 because of local policing strategies. The incarceration rate has fallen, as have nondrug victimless crime arrest rates. The state’s asset forfeiture law is one of the stricter ones in the country, but equitable sharing revenues are a little higher than average, suggesting some evasion of the law. The state was required to legalize same-sex marriage in 2014. Tobacco freedom is extremely low, due to airtight smoking bans and high taxes. Educational freedom grew significantly in 2013–14 with the expansion of vouchers. However, private schools are relatively tightly regulated. There is almost no legal gambling, even for social purposes. Cannabis law is unreformed. Wisconsin is the best state for alcohol freedom, with no state role in distribution, no keg registration, low taxes (especially on beer—imagine that), no blue laws, legal happy hours, legal direct wine shipment, and both wine and spirits in grocery stores. The state is now about average on gun rights after the legislature passed a shall-issue concealed-carry license, one of the last states in the country to legalize concealed carry.

Policy Recommendations

  • Fiscal: Reduce the income tax burden while continuing to cut spending on employee retirement and government employment.
  • Regulatory: Abolish price controls.
  • Personal: Eliminate teacher licensing and mandatory state approval for private schools.
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