During the recent recession, the experience of Texas provides a marked contrast to that of Arizona. Arizona’s gross domestic product (GDP) fell at more than double the rate in the nation while Texas’s GDP barely fell at all. Texas’s employment in 2011 was at an all-time high and even greater than in 2007; by contrast, Arizona’s total employment in 2011 was 10 percent below its peak. Although most of the nation has seen hard times like Arizona has since 2007, Arizona’s economic challenges did not begin with the Great Recession. In fact, Arizona’s inflation-adjusted per capita income has lagged the nation’s for decades and stands steady at around 87 percent of the national level. While Arizona’s per capita personal income growth was fifth lowest among the states, Texas’s was seventh highest despite a large influx of people without jobs.
Arizona performs poorly because it taxes and regulates as if it were a state with natural advantages that can absorb bad public policy. In a comparison of several economic policy indexes between Arizona and its six neighbor states, Arizona outranks only California and New Mexico. These policy indexes include measures of economic freedom, business friendliness, tax systems and burdens, and cost of living. Texas ranks first in one measure, ranks second in two measures, and receives eight top-10 rankings.
Although many think oil and gas are the secret of Texas’s success, energy production is half the relative size of Texas’s economy now compared to what it was in the 1980s. The real secret is Texas’s policies. Those policies include no personal income tax, relatively low business taxes, a mostly simple tax structure that is fairly easy to enforce and comply with, gentle regulation that allows its natural advantages to be exploited, and private ownership of most of the state’s land.
Arizona has its advantages, including mineral wealth, balmy winters, stable geology, an outsized allocation from the Colorado River, and an advantageous state constitution that protects individual property rights and liberties. Arizona’s natural disadvantages are significant and very costly, though. They include lack of access to a water port, remoteness from the majority of Americans who live near and east of the Mississippi River, relatively limited labor and energy resources, and geological features that are visually stunning but topography that presents a surface transportation nightmare. Lawmakers need to take these issues into account when formulating policy and not add costs in a state that is already at some cost disadvantages.
The experience of Texas shows that Arizona can best exploit its comparative advantages with lean, unobtrusive government. The state should adopt Texas-style policies that (1) lower taxes and keep them low; (2) simplify the tax system, especially sales taxes and property taxes; (3) restructure the tax system to eliminate income taxes; (4) reduce business property taxes; (5) reduce regulations such as licensing, land use planning, and zoning; (6) sell state trusts, increasing the stock of private land; and (7) reduce the size of government and end state revenue sharing with local government.