About those roads in Texas
Perhaps you have encountered a phenomenon most travelers from Oklahoma are familiar with: cruising south on I-35, as soon as you cross the Red River the road gets noticeably smoother. The painted lane stripes get a little brighter and the roadside “Welcome to Texas” visitors’ center gleams in the sunlight, a modern and well-maintained reminder of how much more money the Lonestar State spends on public infrastructure than little old Oklahoma.
Or does it? Why are the roads so much, well, better in Texas? Turns out, it isn’t the amount of money spent, at least not when compared to the overall size of the state’s economy and personal income of its inhabitants. Figures compiled by 1889 Institute reveal that Oklahoma actually spends significantly more on roads than Texas as a percentage of both state GDP and personal income. The data was from 2016, before Oklahoma’s tax and spending increases of recent years. The gap is likely greater today.
Oklahoma spends 1.5% of its citizens’ personal income on highways (adjusted for cost of living); Texas spends 0.99%. A similar picture emerges when the size of the states’ economies is factored in. Oklahoma highway spending amounts to 1.2% of its GDP, and Texas’ just 0.8%. By either measure, Oklahoma spends about 50% more. And Texas covers nearly four times the territory of Oklahoma. That’s a lot of road miles.
How can this be? In short, it appears that Oklahoma government is simply inefficient. The same story repeats in other areas. For example, Massachusetts—home to numerous world class hospital systems—actually spends less on hospitals than Oklahoma does, as a fraction of GDP and personal incomes. In fact, Oklahoma spends roughly double the Bay State.
Similar inefficiencies are seen in higher education, common education, and corrections. Oklahoma is not the absolute worst performer in any single category, but we certainly have room for improvement.
Government can’t wave a magic wand and produce billions more for roads and hospitals and prisons, but it can more efficiently spend the tax dollars it does collect. Making the largest state agencies directly accountable to the Governor was a positive first step, but only a first step. Performance audits of state agencies would help the Legislature evaluate spending and search for savings. Competitive bidding laws should be reviewed. State employees could be incentivized to find cost savings. There has been no shortage of proposals over the years.
But proposals are merely words on a page unless leaders commit to the principle that when the government takes our money, it ought to make each dollar stretch as far as possible.
Maybe then we could smooth out the bumps on the road to Dallas.
Ben Lepak is 1889 Institute’s Legal Fellow.