At last, a study that tells us which state governments are working better than ours. Or worse. The financial newsletter 24/7 Wall St. has ranked the nation's fifty states from the "best run" to "worst run." The authors call it "one of the most comprehensive studies of state financial management ever performed by the mainstream media."
If you're looking to vindicate some deep-seated ideological bias, you'll be disappointed. The study does not distinguish between red sates and blue. We have done some of that here, and you can link to further coloration by clicking here.
The bluest of the blue states, where Democrats hold the Governor's office as well as majorities in both legislative chambers and their Congressional delegations? They're not great, not bad. Washington ranks 15th in the "best run" study, with Oregon 23rd.
Our state's per capita debt of $9,658 is cited as the main reason for its ranking below such well-governed states as Wyoming, North Dakota, Iowa, Minnesota, and Vermont. The report says Washington "... just missed being in the top ten for median household income, ranking eleventh with a reported amount of $56,548 for 2009. Unfortunately, the state is also plagued by an extremely high debt, which has only increased through the recession."
Oregon, the authors observe as though praising by faint damnation, "is a fairly well-run state. It has, however, been hit extremely hard by unemployment, with reported rates of 10.6 percent for August, 2010."
Those who claim Washington and Oregon would gain by loosening restraints on gambling should not read about Nevada, where the gambling industry rules almost everything except the weather. Nevada's ninth from the bottom, in really bad shape.
"The value of occupied homes has decreased an astounding 34.1%, the worst in the country. The state also has 14.4 percent unemployment, which is the highest in the country. On top of all this, violent crime rates are extremely high (at 727 per 100,000) making Nevada the second-most violent state in the country."
There may be some satisfaction for Democrats in finding very-Republican Texas to be among the worst-run of all the states. One in five Texans fails to graduate from high school. Twenty-three percent of its people do not have health insurance, the worst rate in the country.
Arizona, where the GOP dominates everything except its U.S. House delegation, manages its affairs almost as badly as Texas. It sports the second-worst credit rating (second to California). Home prices fell more than 20 percent in three years, reflecting unemployment and perhaps some disenchantment with cactus and old peoples' softball.
Then there's California, a steadfastly Democratic state, next to last in the rankings and a standout "among the most poorly governed." Its management style is gridlock, between Republican Gov. Arnold Schwarzenegger's office and the Democrats, who rule most of the grand and historic state capitol. Its $341 billion debt earns it by far the worst credit rating of any state. It also ranks 42nd in health insurance coverage and 48th in high school graduation.
You might expect a business-oriented, investor-targeted news organization to point its research toward conclusions favored by corporate trade groups and chambers of commerce, who complain about taxes at whatever level, in whatever state. Interestingly, the report doesn't mention the level or structure of taxes, at least not in the online summary. The researchers seem more interested in how seriously state government takes its work, manages its debt, supports public education, controls crime, and makes it possible to buy health insurance. (Click here for a summary of the rankings of all 50 states.)
There's bound to be unfairness in any study that compares the quality of governance in a huge, polyglot state such as California (49th) to that of first-place Wyoming, where coal and oil provide whopping revenues and its Democratic governor and Republican everyone-else at the state capitol have only to meet the demands of a homogenous population smaller than Seattle's. If you can't do it right in Wyoming, you can't do it right.
The 24/7 Wall St. study doesn't temper its findings with that sort of rationalization, nor does it sort out the winners and losers according to political demographics, population, ethnic mix, or north/south history. Rather, it applies a long list of criteria that reflect prudent financial management, innovation in government, and a strong faith in the importance of education and health. It ranks states on the unemotional numbers it derives from such factors as per-capita income and debt, credit rating, unemployment, crime, and high-school graduation rates. The research material is fresh, including data from the U.S. Census Bureau's American Community Survey, which released its numbers at the end of September.
The worst run state, by almost every standard? Kentucky. Not 50th in any category, but within the bottom two or three in household income, high school graduation, percentage of citizens below the federal poverty line, and credit rating. "Its overall poor scores," according to 24/7 Wall Street, "secures its place as the worst-run state on our list."