In Oregon, a Test of the Politics of Taxes

Voters are angry about government spending, worried about budgets, mistrustful of government in general and what they really want are...some tax increases? I wouldn'...
by | January 22, 2010
 

Voters are angry about government spending, worried about budgets, mistrustful of government in general and what they really want are...some tax increases?

I wouldn't have thought so if I hadn't seen new polling from Kansas and Utah. In Kansas, a SurveyUSA poll showed that a majority of adults in the state favored increases in the sales tax and tobacco tax. In Utah, a Dan Jones poll indicated that most Utahans favor an income tax increase and a variety of other tax increases too.

Do voters really want higher taxes?

It's hard to say. I'm generally more skeptical of issue polling than I am of horse-race polling. One reason is that question wording gets a lot more complicated for issue polling than horse-race polling.

In particular, the Kansas poll described the sales tax increase as intended "to prevent further funding cuts for education, Medicaid, prisons, roads, and social services." That description almost certainly induced more people to say they supported the tax increase than a straight up-or-down question on a higher sales tax would have.

It's almost impossible to know what's the "right" way to poll a question about tax increases. For horse race polling, we have the test of the election itself. For issue questions, we don't get that test. As a result, the best polling methodology -- the one that reflects the public's "true" feelings -- remains a mystery.

At least we don't usually get that test. Lucky for us, though, Oregon votes on Tuesday on two ballot measures to raise taxes. The votes should give us some hint as to where voters really stand. If legislators around the country are paying attention, the results could influence lawmakers who are trying to find the right balance between budget cuts and tax increases.

The Oregon legislature, which Democrats control, voted last year to raise corporate taxes and raise the income tax on wealthy individuals. Petitioners challenged those tax increases, setting up the hotly contested votes on Measure 66 (on individual taxes) and Measure 67 (on corporate taxes).

Both measures look very tight. The "yes" side -- the side in favor of the tax increases -- enjoys a narrow lead, but support is hovering near 50% in the most recent poll. So far, turnout is lagging in liberal Multnomah County, which may help kill the taxes.

Josh Goodman
Josh Goodman  |  Former Staff Writer
mailbox@governing.com

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