Voters Approve Tax Increases -- Under Some Conditions

February 02, 1992|By HERBERT C. SMITH and DON HAYNES

Responsive governing requires a close and attentive ear to public opinions and expectations. This is doubly true when troubled economic times pit potential winners and losers against each other in hard-ball state budgetary politics. This forces Maryland elected officials to make choices that please none of the players and may well injure long-term state interests.

The Schaefer Center for Public Policy at the University of Baltimore conducted such a comprehensive survey in December issues dealing with the state budget crisis, taxation and services. Surveyors interviewed 844 registered voters who had participated in recent statewide elections.

What did these voters tell us? We found a Maryland electorate that:

* Considers itself informed and concerned about the present fiscal crisis;

* Voices considerable suspicion of overall government efficiency and effectiveness;

* Grudgingly accepts selected tax increases while feeling over-taxed and under-serviced;

* Strongly supports experimenting with non-traditional fiscal strategies, and

@4 * Promises to watch carefully come November '94.

Informed and Concerned

The importance the public attaches to the state fiscal crisis is stunning.

A 62 percent majority responded that budget and taxes were the single most important problem facing the Maryland General Assembly. This reflects a massive opinion shift from an October, Sun Poll. Responses then were scattered across a wider range of categories with a modest 22 percent plurality mentioning the economy and only 16 percent saying taxes were the most important issue.

Furthermore, in our survey, 78 percent of the registered voters said that Maryland's fiscal problems were "very serious" and 60 percent reported they are "paying a lot of attention" to the budget crisis. A miniscule 5 percent said they are not paying much attention at all. Clearly, public opinion has focused on Maryland's fiscal woes and voters are watching Annapolis'

struggles with far more than normal attention.

Government Performance

While Maryland voters are paying attention, they don't express much confidence in elected officials' ability to deal with state problems. In fact, a majority would probably agree with humorist P. J. O'Rourke's position that "giving money and power to government is like giving whiskey and car keys to teen-age boys."

Only 13 percent thought the problem-solving performance of government was excellent or good, 47 percent rated it only fair, ++ and 38 percent rated it poor.

Perceptions of government wastefulness were also conspicuous in the survey. About 63 percent of the voting population said that "government wastes a lot of money," while another 32 percent said the government "wastes some." Only about 3 percent say the government "does not waste much money at all."

Surprisingly, in households with state and local government employees, 65 percent said that government wastes a lot of money.

Two programs appear to bear the brunt of criticism: welfare (cited by 23 percent as being the most wasteful program) and highway/transportation (15 percent).

As for paying taxes, 77 percent of the respondents think the tax system in inequitable in that all income groups do not pay a "fair" share. Further, 63 percent of the respondents felt that they received less from government than they paid for, and 57 percent said that taxes in general were too high when compared to the services provided.

We discovered considerable variation in attitudes toward different types of taxes. While the property tax stands out as the least agreeable form of tax, with 60 percent reporting it was too high. In contrast, only 19 percent said the sales tax was too high.

These findings correspond closely to opinion research in other state and national surveys. The property tax is normally cited as the "least fair" tax and analysts surmise that the method of collection (a single tax bill) contributes to public antagonism. Taxes that exact smaller and continual payments and with discretionary elements, such as the sales tax, are usually perceived as much less offensive.

Taxes and Spending

Contrary to conventional wisdom, Maryland voters do not strongly prefer spending cuts to new taxes. In fact, 38 percent of the respondents said the state should deal with its fiscal problems by raising taxes, while 30 percent said services should be cut. Another 23 percent said "some of each," meaning 61 percent find the possibility of some tax increases acceptable.

If tax increases are to be the order of the day, what kinds of taxes would voters accept? Our analysis suggests that voters find some kinds of taxes acceptable but constrain legislators to a narrow range of options. Only one tax gets overwhelmingly popular support -- an increase in taxes on cigarettes and liquor, with 87 percent of voters approving. Two more get relatively high support: increasing taxes on businesses (59 percent) and taxing professional services (56 percent).

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