In a comparison of states’ total taxes as well as spending in certain broad categories that the 1889 Institute has just published (Oklahoma Government Revenues and Spending in Perspective – Update), some interesting facts arise. Using federal data, we compared states by looking at the percentage of personal income collected in state and local government revenues. We also looked at the percentage of personal income spent in six broad spending categories: higher education, public education, public welfare, hospitals, highways, and corrections.

The data shows that in 2017 Oklahoma’s state and local governments:

  • Extract 13.2 percent of Oklahomans’ personal income in taxes and fees, moving Oklahoma into the Top Ten lowest-taxing states, ahead of Texas.
  • Spend 12.38 percent of personal income on the six featured spending areas (which include federal dollars), only a little below the national average of 12.7 percent. While 9th overall (least spent being first), Oklahoma is not that much better than the 25th-ranked state.
  • Spend a higher percentage of our income on higher education than 28 states.
  • Spend a higher percentage of income on public education than seven states, including Arizona, a leader in educational choice and progress, but making us a Top-Ten state in how well we hold schools’ feet to the fire for their spending.
  • Spend a higher percentage of state personal income on public welfare than 24 states.

In addition, we calculate that if Oklahoma’s state and local governments increased efficiency by 10 percent, doable given the examples of other states, $2 billion would be available to enhance existing services, provide new ones, or be returned to taxpayers.

Unfortunately, compared to two years earlier, the personal income per capita (average per person) numbers, which are adjusted for cost of living, show Oklahoma having lost some ground relative to other states. In fact, the unadjusted personal income per capita actually fell from 2015 to 2017. After all, when the oil industry sneezes, Oklahoma catches cold.

Nevertheless, Oklahoma is still in the top half of states when it comes to average personal income. A big reason for this is due to the adjustment for cost of living. Oklahoma has a low cost of living compared to the vast majority of states. We’re not just Top-Ten in that category; we’re Top-Five. It’s a distinction we should strive to keep.

It’s now arguable that Oklahoma is a low-tax state. But when it comes to specific spending categories, we’re all over the place. We can get a lot better overall if we become more like Florida or New York on higher education, Texas or Virginia on welfare, Georgia or Arizona on highways, and Massachusetts or Illinois on corrections.

We should strive to be the leanest and most efficient of all states in every category of spending at all levels of government. Doing so, we would extract as little as possible from citizens, leaving the greatest possible amount of resources in the private sector, where our free choices cause resources to migrate to their highest valued uses.

Oklahoma has not yet achieved the status of being a low-spending state, but it would be something to celebrate. Some seem to think that high spending and high performance are synonymous, but every value-adding organization on earth knows better. Unbridled spending shows a lack of accountability and an uncritical willingness to take from hard-working taxpayers. It’s a path toward weakness, not strength.

Byron Schlomach is Director of the 1889 Institute. He can be reached at [email protected]