Guest Opinions

Podium: Is Idaho attracting new residents because it is a freedom magnet?

It comes as no surprise to residents of the Treasure Valley that more people are moving to Idaho than leaving the state. Just look at the increasing traffic on our roads.

The migration patterns revealed by a recent Idaho Statesman story would appear to fly in the face of conventional wisdom. Many in the media tell us Idaho ranks low or at the bottom on a number of “key” metrics: per pupil education spending, wages, infrastructure spending, students going on to college, and so on. Larry Kenck, outgoing Idaho Democratic Party chairman, was quoted by the Idaho Politics Weekly as saying, “Idaho languishes near the bottom of practically every indicator.”

So why are people moving here, where are they moving from and what are the policy implications for Idaho’s leaders?

According to the Idaho Statesman article, which used driver’s license exchange data, Idaho received the largest 2014 net migration from California, over 7,000 people, followed by Washington with over 4,000, and Oregon with over 1,000. Only in Utah, among Western states, has the migration gone the other way with nearly 1,000 folks leaving Idaho. Yes, the population losers are often larger states, but the exodus from California is old news — when has it gone the other way? Western states like Montana and Wyoming are essentially a migration wash, and Idaho pulls in smaller numbers from Colorado and Nevada.

Why is Idaho a destination state if the metrics repeated endlessly by our own media are usually negative? People generally research a place before they move. Perhaps the establishment is reading the wrong “tea leaves.” There are things that matter to people more than a desire for ever bigger government. For example the conventional wisdom is that we should judge a state’s commitment to education based on what it spends per pupil, but what about the ability of parents to choose home-schooling without state harassment? Idaho ranks high in this regard. The Mercatus Center revealed in a recent study that Idaho ranks fourth in overall educational freedom.

Perhaps new residents really do care about personal freedoms and seek to avoid states where gun control laws, primary seat-belt enforcement, mandatory motorcycle helmet usage and other various regulatory policies are more restrictive than in Idaho. Some folks might actually appreciate that Idaho’s rural interstate highways are posted at 80 mph in contrast to Oregon’s 65 mph limit.

Idaho’s legislative leaders are often berated by progressives and other establishment types to loosen the purse strings.

Those governments going down the binge-spending path may be heading to fiscal collapse. What good does all of the spending do if the state you live in will become Greece or Detroit? According to the Tax Foundation, for fiscal year 2012 (the most recent available), Idaho ranks 50th, meaning it has the lowest state and local debt per capita of any state. States like California — eighth, Washington — ninth, and Oregon — 19th, are sending citizens our way.

Critics of this line of reasoning might point out that most people don’t look at the hard statistics on spending and debt. Even if they do care about gun laws would they really move to a state with a higher speed limit or no motorcycle helmet restrictions for those reasons?

Yes, you can call all of this suppositional, but policymakers ought to take note that states that provide personal freedom to people to prosper and live their lives with less state interference are gaining citizens. This can be seen by reviewing migration patterns among states for the decade of 2000 to 2010 — Illinois and New York are a great case study.

Perhaps we should understand that people vote with their feet and those votes hardly suggest we make Idaho more like the states folks are leaving.

Fred Birnbaum is vice president of the Idaho Freedom Foundation.

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