When It Comes to Taxes & Spending, It's Never as Simple as the Polling Suggests
Two polls were released in the past week purporting to reveal what the public thinks about taxes and spending in Louisiana (here and here). Both offer a stern warning to legislators: Raise taxes at your political peril.
When it comes to understanding public opinion, few issues are as confounding as fiscal policy. The way the public thinks – and, at times, fails to think – about taxes and spending is far messier than what the topline frequencies of polls like these show. Indeed, what comes out of most polling on tax and spending preferences tends to create more confusion than understanding.
Here are a few points to keep in mind when you see the latest polling numbers.
1. It is true that the public typically balks at proposals to increase taxes…
The recently released polls are consistent with past polling in one respect: When you ask a question about raising a specific tax, you usually do not get a lot of support for it.
Over the past four years, the annual Louisiana Survey (the statewide poll sponsored by the Reilly Center for Media & Public Affairs at LSU’s Manship School of Mass Communication and which I have been involved with since 2015) has included a total of 34 questions about raising specific taxes. Wording differs across these questions – some are proposed as new increases, others ask if current tax rates need to be raised – but the results are fairly consistent. Only ten of the 34 items yielded majority support for a tax increase. This group of ten consists mostly of ‘sin’ taxes (on tobacco, alcohol, or gaming), income taxes on households earning more than $250,000 a year, and fuel taxes dedicated specifically to infrastructure.
Otherwise, the public says ‘no’ to tax hikes.
2. … But the public also opposes most specific spending cuts as well.
This is the missing piece in the polls released over the past ten days. The public opposes spending cuts when asked about specific services. In fact, they oppose these cuts by similar margins as they oppose tax increases.
Last year’s Louisiana Survey asked about spending in six policy areas: K-12 education; higher education; roads, bridges, and highways; health care; prisons and law enforcement; and welfare, food stamps, and other public assistance programs. None of them saw a majority favoring cuts (welfare comes closest at 49%).
Majorities actually want more spending for K-12 education (76%); higher education (73%); roads, bridges, and highways (73%); and health care (56%). Almost everyone (97%) wants to see more spending in at least one area.
The key is that these questions ask about specific spending cuts. Questions that just ask about government spending in general terms miss this. The difference matters. For example, the 2015 Louisiana Survey also asked a general question about how state leaders should deal with a budget shortfall. To which 72% said they want the budget fixed by focusing only (13%) or mostly (59%) on spending cuts. But the appetite for cuts evaporates when it’s time to take the knife to actual programs.
3. Decades of polling in the U.S. show people want something for nothing.
When you put the two together, the interpretations get messy. On one hand, Louisianans say they do not want tax hikes. On the other hand, they say they do not want spending cuts (at least not to any programs that actually exist).
In a classic study of public opinion on taxes and spending, political scientists David Sears and Jack Citrin call this the “something for nothing syndrome.” As they write, “There is a widespread tendency among Americans…to desire simultaneously lower taxes and increased government services.”
Good luck figuring out how to fix a budget deficit on those terms.
4. The polling problem: People won’t make hard choices if they are not asked to make hard choices.
One problem with polls like the two released recently is that they present only one side of this syndrome. They ask only the questions that tee up the headline that “Voters oppose tax hikes”.
They could just as easily asked about specific cuts to spending, and the headline would have been “Voters oppose cutting spending for education and health care” instead.
Either one of those approaches on its own amounts to a misleading half-truth.
Another problem with these kinds of polls – and with the Louisiana Survey, frankly – is they do not come close to capturing the actual policy decisions at issue. Lawmakers face an actual tradeoff. They need to either find additional revenue or make cuts to popular programs (recall that the largest shares of state spending go to education and health care). They are not in a position to preserve spending without paying for it.
These poll questions do not force the tradeoffs that lawmakers face. They offer simplistic choices: Do you want to pay more taxes or do you not want to pay more? Do you want to give up benefits or do you want to keep benefits?
They do not ask the real question: Do you want to give up this benefit or raise that tax?
The whole truth is that we do not know how the public would answer that question.