Monday, October 18, 2010

Voters oppose major cuts and tax increases

By Jamey Dunn

New poll numbers from the Paul Simon Public Policy Institute show Illinois voters generally don’t support tax increases or substantial cuts to the state budget.

More than half of those surveyed in the poll of 1,000 registered voters said the state should cut the budget, and more than a quarter said cuts and new revenue are needed. Only 9 percent said a tax increase was the answer to balancing the budget.

When asked about sources for more revenue, an income tax increase had 40 percent support, with 56 percent opposed. Support on the issue has grown by 9 percentage points from a poll by the institute last year.

Only 24 percent were in favor of increasing the state sales tax, while 45 percent supported extending the sales tax to services. Increased gambling in the state had 49.9 percent support.

While no revenue increase could garner majority support, participants were even less likely to support cuts to major areas of state spending. More than 80 percent were against cuts to services for residents with developmental or physical disabilities and K-12 education. More than 70 percent opposed cuts to police forces or corrections, and more than 60 percent did not back cuts to services for low-income residents. More than 50 percent of participants opposed cuts to higher education and spending on natural resources and conservation.

Public pension benefits garnered the lowest support, with only 47.3 percent opposed to cuts. However, cuts to pension benefits were not backed by a majority either — 45.5 percent were in favor, and 7.2 percent were undecided.

John Jackson, a visiting professor with the Paul Simon Public Policy Institute, said the results, coupled with studies such as a recent report from the Pew Center on the States, show that voters do not understand the budget, which leads to unrealistic expectations. He added politicians have not done enough to educate voters about budget realities. “People have been fed this line that there is ‘waste and fraud out there’ and that it will painlessly solve the problem,” he said.

Jackson said that both nationally and on the state level, politicians have listened to voters’ distaste for tax increases and cuts, and that has contributed to some dire budget troubles. “I think they’ve done what people want so long that we have wound up in this incredible morass that we’re in.”

He said voters dwell on cuts that may get them fired up but fail to do much to help the budget. He used the example of some voters arguing the legislature should cut its staff. “You could fire them all, and all the rest of us that work for the state, and the sum total would be about $3 billion.” Then Illinois would still be facing a $10 billion deficit with no state government left to sort it out.

However, Jackson said some symbolic “high profile sacrificial lamb” cuts, such as politicians’ salary and travel expenses, shouldn’t be ignored because they can help voters have more trust in their leaders. But he said voters need to know that “painless” cuts will not be enough.

Jackson said Quinn has claimed substantial budget cuts, but he needs to do more to illustrate the specifics. “It’s pretty muddy, even though he’s announced $3 billion [in cuts].”

Jackson is not singling out Quinn. He said no candidate running for state office has done a good job explaining the current budget crisis and laying out his or her plan for reform. “I think we’ve missed a good opportunity to have an enlightened conversation.”

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