Marylanders want safety, top schools Annual survey shows nagging worries despite optimism over economy

March 15, 1998

Since 1992, the Schaefer Center for Public Policy at the University of Baltimore has conducted an annual statewide public opinion survey on major issues public officials will likely be facing during the legislative session. The survey provides elected officials with information from average citizens about important policy issues. This year the center surveyed 815 randomly selected Marylanders over age 18. The survey was conducted by Larry Thomas, executive director of the University of Baltimore's School of Public Affairs, and Don Haynes, director of survey research. The margin of error for this survey is approximately plus or minus 4 percentage points. Here are some key results:

Problems and priorities -- The top four priorities for Marylanders are controlling crime (87 percent); improving elementary, middle and high school education (85 percent); developing and keeping jobs (76 percent), and helping families move from welfare to work (75 percent).

The least important priorities are building more or better roads (28 percent); revitalizing older communities (36 percent); improving public transportation (36 percent), and reducing size of government (37 percent).

Lowering taxes was thought to be "very important" by nearly half the respondents (48 percent).

Five years ago, 11 percent of the respondents felt that the most important issue facing state government was taxes. Concern for this dropped to 5 percent in 1994, then rose to 13 percent in 1995. In the past two years, the level of concern has remained about the same. In last year's survey, 14 percent of respondents indicated that taxes were the most important issue facing policy-makers.

In 1992, a majority of respondents mentioned the state budget as an issue of primary concern. Proposals to make deep budget cuts dominated the news that year. Concern for the budget dropped to 14 percent in 1994 but rose to 25 percent in 1995 and remained at 23 percent last year. This year, concern for the budget dropped to 10 percent.

Perceptions of economic conditions -- During the past year, economic optimism has increased.

Of those polled, 24 percent said Maryland's economy would be better off next year, and 62 percent said they thought it would be about the same.

Only 10 percent felt that Maryland would be worse off next year.

Last year, 21 percent of Marylanders felt they would be worse off. In short, Marylanders have become somewhat more optimistic about the overall state of the economy than they were last year.

In terms of personal economic fortunes, about 14 percent said they were worse off now than four years ago. This is a drop from 22 percent last year. Forty-nine percent said they were better off than four years ago, and about 35 percent said they were about the same.

Only about 6 percent of the respondents were truly pessimistic, saying they would be worse off next year. Last year, this number was 9 percent.

Government performance -- A large majority - about 82 percent of the respondents - rated the government's efforts as either "good" or "fair." Only about 11 percent said "poor," while 4 percent said "excellent." This reflects a shift in the evaluation of government performance during the past few years. While ratings of "excellent" remain elusive, responses have shifted from the poor category up to "good" or "fair." Between 1992 and 1998, the number of respondents rating government performance as good tripled from 12 percent to 36 percent, and the number rating it as poor has been cut by two-thirds, from 38 percent to 11 percent.

Sixty three percent of respondents said Maryland is heading in ++ the right direction, with only 18 percent saying the state is heading in the wrong direction. Almost 20 percent did not give an opinion on this question.

A nationwide survey the Washington Post conducted in late January found that 66 percent of those responding said the country was on the right track while 34 percent said it was on the wrong track.

Budget and spending priorities - The greatest public support for spending increases was expressed for public education (75 percent), and police and public safety (70 percent). A majority also favor spending increases for programs for the elderly (56 percent), and for medical assistance to the poor (53 percent). Respondents also say "spend more" for environmental protection (42 percent) and colleges and universities (44 percent).

The public is not crying out for cuts in social programs - but 23 percent of the respondents favor cuts in spending for arts and culture. Twenty-two percent of the respondents favor cutting aid to Baltimore City, and 20 percent favor cuts in aid to local governments. About 19 percent favored cuts in prison and corrections spending.

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