Big Sky Country just might be better for freedom right now than it has ever been, which is not saying as much as one might expect. Personal freedom has generally been below the national average in Montana, but it spiked in 2013–14 because of same-sex marriage, while economic freedom remains a bit above the national average.
Montana’s tax burden is well below the national average. State taxes have held steady over the past several years at about 5.0 percent of personal income. Local taxes spiked in FY 2009 but have settled down since to about 3.1 percent of income. Montanans have virtually no choice in local government, as counties control half of local taxes. Montana’s debt burden has fallen from 20.3 percent of income in FY 2007 to 13.3 percent now. Subsidies are low, and government employment is slightly higher than average. Overall, Montana has posted consistent gains on fiscal policy over the time period we analyze.
Despite significant inmigration, Montana still does not have onerous building regulations. Eminent domain reform has not gone far. The state’s renewable portfolio standards are among the toughest in the country, raising the cost of electricity. The state has a fairly high minimum wage for its median wage level. Overall, it is one of the least free states when it comes to the labor market. Montana has gone from one of the least regulated states for occupational licensing in 2000 to one of the more regulated today. However, nurse practitioners, dental hygienists, and physician assistants enjoy a moderate amount of practice freedom. Insurance freedom is middling, as the state imposes some restrictions on rating criteria but has gone to “file and use” for most lines. It joined the IIPRC in 2013–14. On lawsuit freedom, it is slightly above average (less vulnerable to abusive suits).
Montana is one of the best states for gun rights, although it has fairly extensive limits on where one may carry within cities, and the effective cost of a carry license increased in 2011–12. Montana also does well on gambling, where it has an unusual, competitive model for video terminals that does not involve casinos. On criminal justice, Montana is about average. Drug arrest rates are more than one standard deviation below the national average, but the incarceration rate is above average, when adjusted for crime rates. The state is schizophrenic on cannabis, with a reasonably liberal medical marijuana program (scaled back slightly in 2011–12) but also the possibility of a life sentence for a single cannabis offense not involving minors and a one-year mandatory minimum for any level of cultivation. The civil asset forfeiture law is among the worst for property rights in the country. The burden of proof is on innocent owners, all the proceeds go to law enforcement, and the burden of proof for showing a property is forfeitable is mere probable cause. Tobacco and alcohol freedoms are subpar, with draconian smoking bans, higher-than-average cigarette taxes, and a state monopoly on liquor stores. Educational freedom is mediocre, with fairly light regulation of private schools and homeschools but no choice programs. The state was forced to legalize same-sex marriage in 2014, and its oppressive super-DOMA was therefore overturned.