February 10, 2011

Fewer Want Spending to Grow, But Most Cuts Remain Unpopular

Section 4: Dealing with State Budget Problems

Eight-in-ten Americans (81%) say their state is currently facing budget problems, and 36% say the problems in their state are very serious. At the other end of the spectrum, 20% say their state either has no budget problems (12%) or that the problems are not too serious (8%).

There has been virtually no change in opinion about the seriousness of the state budget problems compared with public perceptions eight years ago. A January 2003 Washington Post/ABC News survey found 82% saying their state faced budget problems, and 34% describing those problems as very serious.

Views about the severity of the budget situation vary across the country. People in the Pacific region are the most likely to say their state is facing serious budget problems – 62% say their budget problems are very serious. In the Middle Atlantic, East North Central and Mountain West, about four-in-ten say the budget problems are very serious. Far fewer people in other regions say their state’s budget problems are very serious.

States Responsible for Their Own Problems

If states are facing default over the course of the coming year, there is little public support for a federal government bailout. Six-in-ten (60%) say that if states can’t balance their budgets, they should deal with it themselves by raising taxes or cutting services. Only 27% say that the federal government should give more money to the states to help them meet their budgets, even if it means higher federal deficits. These views are little changed from a Pew Research/National Journal survey conducted last June and a CBS News poll conducted in April 2003.

As was the case last summer, more Republicans than Democrats think the states should handle their own budget problems. About three-fourths (78%) of Republicans and 57% of independents say the states should take care of their own budget problems, by raising taxes or cutting services. Democrats are more divided in their view – 51% say states should handle their own budget problems while 40% think the federal government should give more money to the states, even if it increases the deficit.

How Should States Handle Budget Problems?

The public thinks the best way for states to deal with their budget problems is through a combination of spending cutbacks and increased state taxes. About two-thirds (68%) say their state lawmakers should do a combination of cutting major programs and increasing taxes. Far fewer (19%) think that focusing mostly on cutting major programs is the best way to deal with the budget in their state. Only 4% say focusing mostly on increasing taxes is the best approach.

The public recently expressed similar views when asked about the federal budget deficit. In December, 65% said the best way to reduce the federal budget deficit is through a combination of cutting major government programs and increasing taxes (See “Deficit Solutions Meet With Public Skepticism”.)

There is broad bipartisan agreement that to tackle the budget problems many states are facing, lawmakers should cut major programs and increase taxes. Majorities of Democrats (80%), independents (65%) and Republicans (60%) favor a combination of cutting spending and increasing taxes. Even among Republicans, only 31% say the best way to address state budget problems is to focus mostly on cutting major programs.

Most State Budget Solutions Unpalatable

While the public supports a combination of major cuts and tax increases in the abstract, there is far less support for some of the specific proposals many states are considering. Of eight possible proposals for dealing with state budgets, none receives majority support.

Decreasing the pension plans of government employees receives the most support from the public, though as many oppose the idea as support it (47% each). Only about three-in-ten support their state cutting funding for public colleges and universities (31%) or decreasing funding for maintaining roads and public transportation (31%). Even fewer favor decreases in health care services (21%) or in funding for K through 12 public schools (18%).

When it comes to raising taxes, 41% think their state should increase taxes on businesses while 55% are opposed to this. The public is less supportive of increasing or establishing state sales taxes (30%) or personal income taxes (28%).

Partisans differ on the various ways states can reduce their budgets, but opposition to most proposals crosses party lines. In general, Republicans are more likely than Democrats to support spending cuts in their state, with the exception of reducing funding for roads and public transportation. But even among Republicans, the only spending decrease that receives majority support is reducing the pension plans of government employees.

Democrats are more likely than Republicans to support increasing taxes on businesses and raising personal income taxes, though neither idea garners majority support from either party, or from independents. And there is substantial opposition to sales tax increases across party lines.

Even among those who say their state is facing a crisis there is broad opposition to most of the spending cuts or tax increases under discussion. On six of eight items tested, there are no significant differences in the opinions of those who say their state has very serious budget problems and those who do not.

State and Local Governments Viewed Favorably

Even as debates about state budget problems have intensified, views of state governments have changed little over the past year. A majority (53%) continues to express a favorable opinion of their state government, while 42% have an unfavorable view. Views of local governments are even more positive – nearly twice as many have a favorable opinion of their local government as have an unfavorable one (63% vs. 32%). By contrast, public views of the federal government continue to be more negative than positive. Only 38% have a favorable view of the federal government, while 57% express an unfavorable opinion.

There continue to be strong partisan differences in views of the federal government. More than twice as many Democrats (58%) as Republicans (25%) express a favorable opinion of the federal government, as has been the case since Barack Obama took office. The pattern was reversed during George W. Bush’s administration, with Republicans expressing more favorable views than Democrats.

By contrast, views of state and local governments do not differ substantially across party lines. A majority of Democrats (57%), Republicans (53%) and independents (51%) have a favorable view of their state government. Similarly, 69% of Democrats, 65% of Republicans and 58% of independents view their local government favorably.