A flawed Sun Poll

Ron Smith

March 02, 1992|By Ron Smith

WHAT A gleeful headline greeted The Sun's readers a week ago today: "Raise Taxes," it declared above a story that a Sun Poll had found that Marylanders overwhelmingly want their taxes raised rather than undergo the horrors of reduced government.

More than two-thirds of those responding to the poll indicated they would rather see a combination of tax increases and budget cuts than any attempt to balance the budget through deep cuts in state spending.

Inside was an editorial attack on House Speaker Clayton Mitchell for his anti-tax stand, The Sun reminding him that according to its poll, just 18 percent of the electorate supports his position. The editorial also emphasized that the pollsters found that 82 percent of the 1,210 persons polled agreed with the statement that "most elected officials are out of touch with the problems of the people," using this to suggest that this criticism applies most particularly to Mr. Mitchell and others opposing tax increases, such as Baltimore County's Ellen Sauerbrey I wonder.

Governor Schaefer, who has been plugging for tax increases for a while now, said the poll vindicated his efforts. But if this is so, why is it that other polls show his popularity at an all-time low? And might there not be some truth to what Ms. Sauerbrey, the House minority leader, says by way of explanation: that the poll was suspect because it asked voters to choose between "some taxes" and "deep cuts," which may not be the only alternatives?

Money magazine recently declared Maryland one of the nation's 10 "tax hell" states. Between 1980 and 1990, state tax revenues rose 110 percent -- a rate of increase twice that of inflation. Also, the Census Bureau reports that Maryland is seventh of all states in per-capita taxes. The typical family of four pays an annual state tax bill of nearly $8,000. Furthermore, over the last 10 years state government spending has been growing faster than that of personal income by about 5 percent a year.

One doesn't have to be an accountant to figure out that this kind of trend cannot be sustained long. Yet Mr. Schaefer would accelerate the trend, to the accompanying cheers of the editors of your newspapers (which, for some strange reason, the governor considers his sworn enemies, though they seem to share his goal of ever-bigger government).

Poll results, of course, are greatly influenced by the way questions are constructed, and I wonder what the response would have been to a question such as this: "If your legislator voted to raise taxes so as not to have to face the necessity of bringing government spending under control, would you be more or less likely to vote for that person?"

Many of us think this is as accurate a way of stating the problem as any of the pollster's queries, and we wonder what the Sun headline would have said to that.

Ron Smith is a talk-show host on WBAL.

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