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Thursday, Oct. 27, 2011 03:32 pm

Poll: Illinoisans still believe in budget magic

But reality about cuts and revenues seems to be gaining ground

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It’s long been a tenet of public opinion that voters want the government to cut its budget and don’t want new revenues, but also don’t want any actual programs slashed.

However, the latest Paul Simon Public Policy Institute poll shows a slow but sure trend in favor of specific state budget cuts and revenue increases.

A large majority of Illinoisans do still believe in magic. According to the poll, 58 percent say the state budget can be balanced by cutting waste and inefficiency. And because of this belief in an utter fantasy world where fairies reign and magic dust solves all our problems, too few want to actually cut state spending programs.

According to the poll, 80 percent oppose cuts in K-12, 74 oppose cuts to public safety programs and 83.5 percent oppose cuts to programs for people with mental or physical disabilities. About 65 percent oppose cuts to spending on programs for poor people. The Institute’s poll of 1,000 registered voters was taken Oct. 11-16 and has a margin of error of /- 3 percentage points. This was not an autodial “robopoll.” Real people made the calls.

However, there is growing support for cuts. More Illinoisans wanted to protect programs in the Institute’s poll taken three years ago than they do today.

For instance, back in 2008 just 24 percent of Illinoisans favored cuts to pension benefits for state workers’ retirement. Three years later, that support has grown to 45.5 percent. As of now, 48 percent oppose those cuts, but 66 opposed those same cuts three years ago. And there’s a clear trend every year in between.

Also back in 2008, 73 percent opposed cuts to spending on state parks and environmental regulation, but that opposition has fallen to 55.6 percent (perhaps not a coincidence is the increased national Republican rhetoric over “job killing” government regulations).

Again, there is a clear trend over the years toward favoring more cuts. This is not what’s known as an “outlier” poll. In the 2008 poll, for example, 72 percent opposed cuts to state universities. By 2008, opposition had fallen to 61 percent, then fell again to 57.4 percent in 2010. Now, 54 percent oppose cuts to university funding. That’s still a solid majority, but far less than just a few years ago.

And while support for cuts has grown, so has support for some revenue generating ideas.

For instance, the Institute’s poll found that a very substantial 57 percent of Illinoisans now support gaming expansion, while 39 percent oppose it.

That’s 10 points higher than the 47 percent who supported gaming expansion in the Institute’s 2008 poll. Back then, a slight plurality of 46.9 percent actually opposed gaming expansion.

We haven’t heard much from gaming opponents during this year’s months-long debate over expansion. They aren’t as organized or as vocal as they used to be, perhaps because they’re losing public support.

Also according to the poll, a very slight majority, 50.1 percent, support expanding the sales tax to cover services like dry cleaning or haircuts, which are not currently taxed. About 46 percent opposed the idea. But today’s support is way higher than in 2008, when only 28 percent favored expanding the sales tax to services.

And even though just 22 percent favored increasing the state sales tax rate, that’s still five points higher than the 17 percent who backed the idea three years ago.

Among the poll’s other findings, a whopping 69 percent of voters support raising cigarette taxes by a dollar a pack, while just 28.5 percent oppose it. The Institute has not asked this question before, so there’s no way to measure the history of its popularity in this particular poll.

Also, 49 percent opposed applying the state income tax to the retirement income of those earning more than $50,000 a year, while 43 percent favored the idea. This issue hadn’t been polled before, either.

What does all this mean? Well, people are gradually becoming more realistic about the state budget, which is a good thing. They’re becoming more conservative about spending and more liberal about new revenues.

These trends make the state easier to govern. Even with this year’s income tax increase, difficult budget decisions still must be made. The more people who are open to cuts and revenues, the easier it is politically to make those cuts and create those new revenue streams.  

Rich Miller publishes Capitol Fax, a daily political newsletter, and CapitolFax.com.

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