Voters back slots, taxes for schools

Results: Marylanders are dissatisfied with public schools. But a small majority would be willing to pay more taxes and allow slot machines if students would benefit.

The Maryland Poll

January 09, 2002|By David Nitkin and Sarah Koenig | David Nitkin and Sarah Koenig,SUN STAFF

Maryland voters are so concerned about the quality of their public schools that a majority say they would pay higher taxes and allow slot machines in the state if the money would go toward improving education, a new poll shows.

As the 90-day General Assembly session gets under way today, most voters say lawmakers should cut government spending to close a state budget shortfall - but not at the expense of education.

By a 52-40 percent margin, state voters are willing to pay higher taxes for better schools, according to the Maryland Poll, a survey conducted for The Sun by Potomac Inc. And 54 percent favor amending the state constitution to allow slot machines if a portion of the proceeds is spent on education, with 39 percent opposing the idea.

"The fundamental concern of the quality of schools in Maryland is making slots more politically palatable, especially in a time of economic uncertainty," said Keith Haller, president of Potomac Inc., a Bethesda polling firm.

"If there is a narrow window of opportunity for slots to be favorably considered, I think 2002 is that year."

Marylanders answered questions on a variety of the most contentious issues that will come before the General Assembly in the coming weeks.

Their responses demonstrate that Maryland remains a strikingly liberal state, but that voters' views on some issues - such as protecting the environment at the expense of job creation - have moderated somewhat during the current economic downturn.

A slim plurality of voters, 49 percent, say they would be willing to temporarily forgo the final year of a phased-in income-tax reduction to help balance the state budget. Forty-three percent say the cut - about $75 for an average family of four - should take effect as planned. Legislative leaders are divided on whether the money should be returned to taxpayers this year or spent on programs, and the debate is expected to dominate budget negotiations.

By a nearly 3-1 margin, voters say lawmakers should work hard to protect the environment, even at the cost of job creation. While the numbers dropped from a year ago, when 68 percent said the environment was more important than jobs, pollsters called the finding "extremely significant."

Residents across the state say mass transit is a better solution than road-building for transportation problems. Fifty-three percent say they prefer investment in mass transit, compared with 31 percent who want new roads. The view is shared across geographic and party lines.

Voters' willingness to spend more on classrooms - even in economic bad times - comes after perceiving no marked improvement in the quality of education, despite years of increased school funding backed by Gov. Parris N. Glendening. The poll shows that residents give schools the same grade they did four years ago, about a C+.

Overall, more voters say they want their lawmakers to concentrate on education during the next three months than on any other issue, but concerns vary by region. Residents in the greater Baltimore area are most worried about crime, for instance, while Washington area voters care more about classrooms.

Like most voters, Fran Rosen-blatt, 42, a part-time respiratory therapist from Owings Mills, is not especially eager to see slots come in or to see her tax bill rise. But she's willing to endorse both if it means a better education for her two children.

"On a very basic level, if schools could improve because of raising taxes, I'd be in favor of that," she said. "If they are going to allow gambling, then the money raised from it should be used for something as basic as schools."

Slots supporters are expected to make their push anew during the legislative session. Del. Howard P. Rawlings, the Baltimore Democrat who heads the House Appropriations Committee, says he will sponsor a bill that would authorize a November referendum on a constitutional amendment to allow slots at racetracks and possibly other locations.

While Glendening has adhered to a "no slots, no exceptions" position throughout his administration, many voters believe Maryland cash is flowing to neighboring states that allow the machines.

"The money is going to Delaware. The money is going to New Jersey. You are not stopping it. You are just losing out on it," said Daniel Byrd, 50, a computer-training instructor from Greenbelt. "If you go to a racetrack and they have off-track betting, how is that different from slots?"

Rawlings is skeptical that his proposal will pass the legislature.

The nearly four of 10 voters who oppose the idea could prove too daunting a bloc to overcome, he said. Opponents are most numerous in Montgomery County, the state's largest jurisdiction, where 50 percent rejected the idea.

"That, to most elected officials, who prefer not having controversial elections, would be considered a significant opposition," Rawlings said, adding that the same is true of the 40 percent who oppose a tax increase to pay for schools.

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