Tuesday, April 20, 2010

A Plea for Better Budget Polling

I’m not a pollster. I’m just a politician wanting to know what voters really think about how we should realistically close a $20B deficit. That’s why I am making this public plea for better budget polling.

Most if not all polls ask voters simple questions about budget issues out of context or in a “vacuum.” Vacuum polls show us that everyone hates cuts to the services they care about and that everyone dislikes the thought of paying more taxes. But a budget with huge deficits like the ones California has recently experienced can’t be balanced without substantial cuts or tax increases or both. So, how can these polls better help politicians determine true public opinion on budget issues?

These polls reflect a tremendous conflict on the part of the voters. It has become clear that voters abhor taxes conceptually. But it has become equally clear that voters love public services and find it hard to identify services to cut in order to balance the state budget. What these polls reflect is incoherent thinking—not on the part of the voters, but on the part of the polls.

By testing voters’ dislike of cuts and taxes in a vacuum, we know little of their opinions in the context of the services they value and the taxes which pay for them. My dream poll would include questions like this:
Q1: Which of these state services do you value:
- public education
- public parks
- public roads and highways
- public libraries
- public safety
- state regulation of food safety
- state regulation of workplace protections
- state regulation for clean water and clean air
Q2: Of these public services, which would you eliminate first in order to balance the state budget?
Q3: Would you prefer to pay slightly higher taxes to protect those services you value?
Q4: Would you pay slightly higher taxes to expand those services?
Q5: Would you prefer to pay slightly lower taxes in order to reduce or eliminate those services?

The data now being produced is less than useless; in fact, it’s downright harmful. Everyone hates taxes in a vacuum. These well-meaning but poorly written polls feed right into the Grover Norquist no tax, no government narrative and fail to give an accurate snapshot of what the voters want. Because these polls provide skewed data, they reinforce the common belief that government is out of touch with the voters’ desires. Please, pollsters and research organizations—start testing voters’ opinions on the budget within the context of why we pay taxes and which services will have to be cut.