October 21, 2009

Illinois voters want budget cuts but can't say where

CARBONDALE, ILL. -- Registered voters in Illinois oppose tax increases and think the state should make big cuts in the state budget -- but they also don’t seem to have specific things they want to see trimmed, according to a poll released Wednesday by the Paul Simon Public Policy Institute at Southern Illinois University Carbondale.

“These numbers pose a real quandary for political leaders in the state. People say they want to cut state services, but they can’t seem to point to things that should be trimmed,” said David Yepsen, director of the institute.

A substantial majority (56.5 percent) of Illinoisans polled thought the state’s budget problems could be solved by cutting waste and inefficiency in government. Only about one in ten (9.5 percent) said they thought only a revenue increase could fix the state’s budget problems. Another quarter (27.3%) said a combination of budget cuts and tax increases would be needed to solve the budget problem.

Charles Leonard, the Simon Institute visiting professor who supervised the poll, said, “A huge underlying problem lawmakers face is the folk wisdom that state government is so full of massive waste and fraud that, if we could only find the will to cut them, such an action would make our fiscal problems disappear. While we could continue to find more things to trim, the size of the deficit looms well beyond what cutting waste alone can solve.”

Almost two-thirds (65.5 percent) of registered voters oppose raising the income tax from 3 percent to 4.5 percent as proposed by Gov. Pat Quinn. Three-fourths (75.8 percent) oppose raising the state sales tax; 53.3 percent oppose expanding the sales tax to cover more services. Another 51.4 percent oppose expanded gambling; 63.5 percent oppose selling state assets like the lottery or toll roads.

But when asked a series of questions about what should be cut, respondents were hard-pressed to point to anything specific:

There are 84.4 percent who oppose cuts to K-12 education; 61.4 percent oppose cuts to higher education; 79.8 percent oppose cuts to state police or prison operations; 63 percent don’t want to cut spending on state parks or environmental projects.

Also, 72.4 percent don’t want to cut spending on programs for poor people; 85.3 percent oppose reductions in spending for people with mental and physical disabilities; 53.4 percent oppose cuts to state pensions.

“A cynic might suggest people in Illinois are being quite rational here,” Yepsen said. “Many seem to want services without paying for them. We all like that kind of deal, but the trouble is, you can’t build a state budget on such logic.

“Part of the problem for policy makers in Illinois is that many people don’t feel they get good value for state services,” he said. “There are 48 percent who don’t think the value of state services is very good. By contrast, 39 percent don’t think federal services are so good and 30 percent don’t think much of local services.”

These numbers also may explain why legislators want to wait until after the February primary before voting on budget cuts or revenue increases. “Lawmakers can sense this is how people feel,” Yepsen said. “No matter what they do to resolve the budget questions, they are going to make people mad.”

The Simon Institute poll repeated many of these questions from last year’s inaugural statewide poll. Just as last year’s results showed, Illinoisans are as reluctant to raise taxes as they are to support cuts.

However, there has been some public opinion movement since fall 2008, both on the revenue-enhancing side and the program-cutting side.

Last year, for example, 20.9 percent favored spending cuts for state universities; this year support grew to 31.9 percent. In 2008, 21.2 percent favored spending cuts for natural resources such as state parks and environmental services; in 2009 that increased to 32.0 percent.

In the Simon Institute’s 2008 poll, 28.4 percent favored expanding the state sales tax to cover services, such as dry cleaning or haircuts; in the 2009 poll, 44.1 percent approved. In a less dramatic result, 21.4 percent of those surveyed this year approved of raising the sales tax rate, up from 17.0 percent in 2008.

“These results may show that increasing numbers of voters have come to the conclusion that something’s got to give,” Leonard said. “While most people still oppose both specific cuts and various tax increases, the continued media attention to the budget situation, and the daily realities of people losing their jobs and state services disappearing may be bringing people closer to the stark realities of funding state operations. I expect next year’s poll will demonstrate even more movement.”

The Paul Simon Public Policy Institute funded, created and directed this telephone survey of 800 registered voters across the state of Illinois. Interviews were conducted between September 9, 2009, and October 8, 2009, by the Survey Research Center at the University of North Texas. Respondents were chosen at random, and each interview lasted approximately 15 minutes. Results from the entire sample have a statistical margin for error of ± 3.4 percentage points at the 95 percent confidence level. This means that if we were to conduct the survey 100 times, in 95 of those instances the results would vary by no more than plus or minus 3.4 points from the results obtained here. The margin for error will be larger for demographic, geographic, and response subgroups.

For more information: Contact Charles Leonard, 618/303-9099

Click here for complete poll results.