CHEYENNE — Wyoming has long prided itself on its love of personal liberty and aversion to government intrusion in people’s lives.

But a new study finds that Wyoming may not be as free as people think.

The Equality State ranked 21st in the nation in terms of individuals’ economic, social and personal freedoms, according to the study, released earlier this month by the Mercatus Center, a libertarian think tank based at George Mason University in Virginia.

Wyoming ranked 20th in terms of personal freedom and 23rd in economic freedom. The state also tied California as the state that declined the most in terms of overall freedom since the first version of the study was released in 2009.

New Hampshire and South Dakota were named the “most free” states, while Wyoming neighbors Idaho and Colorado made the top 10. New York came in last.

Part of the reason that Wyoming fell from 15th in the 2009 study to 21st this year has to do with Wyoming’s economic reliance on energy production, said Texas State University political science professor William Ruger, who co-authored the study.

Personal income was a factor used in determining how free states are economically, Ruger said, and the new study was going off of economic data from 2009, when energy prices were down from previous years.

“That’s an unfortunate thing that we, as researchers have to face — we don’t get the data in time,” he said. “So [the data used] might not ring true to what is exactly the case right now.”

But there are a number of other, more legitimate reasons that Wyoming is only in the middle of the pack when it comes to freedom, Ruger said.

For one thing, Wyoming has an unusually large public sector compared to other states, he said. In 2010, there were 328 state and local government employees for every 1,000 private-sector workers, according to the U.S. Bureau of Labor Statistics.

Much of that work force is paid for with energy severance taxes that aren’t directly paid by Wyoming residents, Ruger said. But that just makes it easier to hire more government workers, he said.

“You can grow government without feeling the pinch, and then you’ve got a big government,” he said. “And they can cause all kinds of other troubles, right?”

The study also recommends that Wyoming deregulate its telecommunications and cable sectors, as well as reform its asset-forfeiture laws, which allow the government to seize the property of criminals who commit, or allegedly commit, drug-related crimes.

“On personal freedom, Wyoming isn’t as good as that small-L [libertarian] reputation,” Ruger said.

However, Wyoming scored well on a number of other factors in the study, including low beer and cigarette taxes, low health-insurance regulation, and the least amount of government debt of any state.

“It’s a relatively free state,” Ruger said. “It could just do better in certain areas.”

Sven Larson, an economist with the Wyoming Liberty Group, a Cheyenne-based libertarian think tank, said in general he agrees with the Mercatus Center study’s findings — especially the need to cut state and local government payrolls.

However, Larson said he was surprised to hear that Wyoming had fallen in the Mercatus study rankings during the past two years.

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“When you look at the raw macroeconomic numbers, we haven’t exactly declined,” he said. “We’ve just been behind for a while.”

Meanwhile, Dan Neal, director of the Equality State Policy Center, a Laramie-based liberal think tank, was more skeptical of the study’s findings.

“I guess I don’t know what they’re talking about,” he said. “I didn’t wake up the morning the report came out and feel like, ‘Gee, I’m much less free today.’”

Given that half of Wyoming is owned by the federal government, the need for infrastructure such as roads, and that the state has the lowest population in the nation, it’s not surprising that statistics show Wyoming with a comparatively large public sector, Neal said.

But the public sector is that size out of necessity, he said.

“There’s sort of a certain minimum number of people you need to have providing public services if you want to have a working community,” he said, offering as an example small rural Wyoming towns that strive to have their own schools.

As for telecommunications deregulation, Neal asked who that would benefit.

“Will consumers benefit with telecom deregulation, or is it more likely to be some big communications corporation or cable corporation?” he asked. “Seems to me we’ve got a pretty competitive communications market in Wyoming.”

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Contact capital bureau reporter Jeremy Pelzer at (307) 632-1244 or jeremy.pelzer@trib.com. Follow him on Twitter: @jpelzer.