Answers put state among progressives

More would spend or save surplus than take a tax cut

Worries: Traffic, growth

The Maryland Poll

January 10, 2001|By Thomas W. Waldron and Howard Libit | Thomas W. Waldron and Howard Libit,SUN STAFF

As the General Assembly convenes today, a new statewide poll shows Marylanders backing a staunchly liberal agenda - with the majority of voters supporting gay rights, insuring the uninsured, more aid for Baltimore's schools, additional mass transit funding and banning the sale of handguns.

Moreover, the state's registered voters are strikingly generous: Less than a third of those polled want Maryland to use its nearly $400 million budget surplus to cut their taxes. A majority want to spend the surplus on priorities or save it for the future.

And two-thirds of respondents across the state said it was important to protect the environment, even if it might cost some jobs, according to the Maryland Poll conducted for The Sun and two Washington-area news outlets, the Gazette newspapers and WTOP radio.

While the perennial concerns of schools and crime top the problems most voters want the General Assembly to tackle during its 90-day annual session, more than half the state considers traffic congestion to be a major problem or at a crisis stage, according to the poll.

More than a third of those polled reported spending more than two hours a day in their cars, and more than half of the state's work force has adjusted their working schedule to cope with the congestion.

The Maryland Poll results show the left-wing tilt of much of Maryland - a leaning also reflected in the past two elections, in which Democrats won convincing victories in statewide races. But even experienced political analysts were struck by the degree of that tilt.

"It really places Maryland in kind of a rarified position as one of the most progressive states in the country," said Keith Haller, president of Potomac Survey Research, the Bethesda firm that performed the survey. "It's quite extraordinary that across the state, voters are really willing to dig into their own pockets to help people with special needs."

Among the key issues before this year's legislative session, the state is most divided on the death penalty. Forty-four percent of those asked said they favor halting executions while officials study whether the death penalty is handed out fairly, while 49 percent said they were opposed to such a moratorium.

The gay rights issue provokes a much clearer consensus, as respondents by a margin of 60 percent to 32 percent said they would support a measure prohibiting housing and job discrimination against gays and lesbians.

Such legislation has died in the State House many years running but will return in coming weeks. In the poll, the gay rights proposal won support in nearly every area of the state, with Democrats strongly supportive and Republicans evenly split.

"I think it shows that the public sees this as a civil rights issue," said Del. Samuel I. Rosenberg, a Baltimore Democrat pushing the measure. "Just as other groups merit this protection in the law, so do gays and lesbians."

By a narrower margin, 52 percent to 44 percent, those polled said they support banning the sale of all handguns in Maryland. No state has such a prohibition, although the District of Columbia bans all handguns. While state Attorney General J. Joseph Curran Jr. has advanced such a proposal, the legislature has never considered it.

Among those respondents supporting a ban is Vicki McComas, 47, a self-described "very liberal" Democrat who lives in Fells Point. "There are too many kids in the city who are killing each other," said McComas, who owns an antique shop with her husband.

What to do with the state budget surplus is among the top issues facing the Assembly, and a strong majority of registered voters polled say lawmakers should spend it on such priorities as education or save it for future needs in case the economy turns south. Only 31 percent of those asked said the surplus should be used for a tax cut, although roughly half of all Republicans favor the idea.

Poll respondent Evelyn Gilbert, 60, a disabled former data entry worker from Essex, said more state funds are needed to help the homeless, rebuild blighted neighborhoods and provide health care for those who can't pay medical bills.

"It's really terrible," said Gilbert. "I don't know how people live."

Gilbert is hardly alone in her support for using state funds to expand health insurance coverage. Almost three out of five of those surveyed agreed.

In addition, the poll found, Marylanders generally support sending more state aid to the Baltimore school system, with 52 percent in favor and 34 percent opposed. Even in Montgomery County, where some officials have criticized the state for sending too much money to Baltimore, respondents said they support more aid for the city by a margin of 54 percent to 26 percent.

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