February 22, 2013

Poll: Voters divided over how to fix pension system

CARBONDALE, Ill. -- Illinois voters agree there’s a problem with public employee pensions in the state but they’re closely divided over what to do about it, according to a poll by the Paul Simon Public Policy Institute at Southern Illinois University Carbondale.

“The results show the people of Illinois are aware of the problems in their state funded pension systems and of some actions which could be taken by state government,” John S. Jackson, a visiting professor at the Institute, said.

“There’s a general feeling that state employees are going to have to take some losses in their pension plans, but a majority of people in Illinois is not supportive of draconian measures.  There is majority support only for incremental changes to the pension system,” Jackson said.

The poll also shows strong opposition to raising taxes, making the 5 percent income tax permanent or expanding the list of items subject to the state sales tax.  Instead, voters support cuts to state spending to balance the budget.  Poll results are available here.

The live-interview telephone poll of registered voters across the state was taken between Jan. 27 and Feb. 8.  It has a margin for error of plus or minus four percentage points at the 95 percent confidence level.  One-third of the interviews were conducted via cell phone.

The survey found:

• A majority opposes suspending retirees’ annual cost of living increases for six years.  There were 57 percent opposed and 36.5 percent in support.

• Voters were evenly divided over the idea of granting a cost of living increase to only the first $25,000 of retirees’ pensions.  There were 45.17 percent favoring it and 44.3 percent opposed. 

• Another way to handle cost of living increases is to have them deferred until the retirees are age 67 or older.  This proposal gained support from 58.3 percent and was opposed by 37.5 percent. 

• A more controversial proposal is to increase the age at which retirees can receive full benefits from 65 to 67.  This proposal, too, gained majority support with 56.8 percent in favor and 41.3 percent opposed.

• Respondents were also asked about proposals to increase the age at which retirees could receive state-paid health care benefits from 65 to 67.  This proposal divided the electorate almost in half, with 49 percent favoring and 48.7 percent opposed.

• Voters were also evenly divided over a proposal to make local school districts pay more of the cost of local teacher pensions in order to ease the cost to the state. This proposal would shift some of the burden to local school districts and require districts outside Chicago to pay the state’s portion of the retirement plan.  (This is already done in Chicago).  Supporters argue local school districts effectively award pension benefits but require the state to pick up the tab, which provides no incentive to districts to reign in pension costs.  Opponents argue the idea would take money away from classroom education in already cash-strapped schools.

There were 45.1 percent favoring this proposal and 42.6 percent opposed.  Perhaps not surprisingly, the most support for this proposal was in Chicago where almost half of the respondents (49.1 percent) supported it with the next highest in the suburbs, where 48.6 percent supported.  Downstate areas outside the city and suburbs were the regions with the most opposition. Only 36.6 percent favored it while 48.8 percent opposed or strongly opposed.

• When asked whether they favored spending cuts, tax increases or both to plug the state budget holes, there were 54.7 percent who favored cuts in spending, 7.5 percent supported more revenue and 28.8 percent who said both were needed.

• A large majority -- 63.3 percent -- opposed making the temporary 5 percent income permanent. There were 28.6 percent who favored that idea and 8 percent didn’t know.

• Voters also did not like the idea of expanding the list of items subject to the state sales tax.  There were 59.5 percent opposed, 37.3 percent in support and 3.2 percent who didn’t know.

Methods: For this poll, the Institute surveyed 600 registered voters across the state, Jan. 27 through Feb. 8, resulting in a statistical margin for error of plus or minus 4 percentage points, at the 95 percent confidence level.

The questionnaire was available in both English and Spanish, and a Spanish-speaking interviewer was made available. The sample included two-thirds land-line phones and one-third cell phones. The Simon Institute developed the questionnaire, and live phone interviews were administered by Customer Research International of San Marcos, Texas, which reports no Illinois political clients. The Institute paid for the project out of non-state funds from its endowment. The Simon Institute poll is directed by Charles Leonard, a visiting professor at the Institute.

(Note:  The “Paul Simon Public Policy Institute Poll,” the “Simon Poll” and the “Southern Illinois Poll” are the copyrighted trademarks of the Board of Trustees of Southern Illinois University.  Use and publication of these polls is encouraged -- we ask only that you credit it to the Paul Simon Public Policy Institute at Southern Illinois University.)