Alabama’s Republican governor began talking about raising taxes recently, and his conservative colleagues began to sound the alarm across this deeply red state. Given that reaction, some might be surprised to learn that many in the state actually would not mind paying higher taxes if it meant not cutting services.
That’s the conclusion of a recent scientific poll conducted by the nonpartisan Public Affairs Research Council of Alabama, also known as PARCA. Alabamians surveyed said they’d pay higher taxes if it meant not cutting education, healthcare and public safety.
On the other hand, those same surveyed Alabamians said they didn’t necessarily trust government to use tax dollars wisely.
The survey, conducted in January in collaboration with PARCA by Randolph Horn, Samford University professor of political science and director of the college’s Strategic and Applied Analysis, was released in February, and offers up the collective opinion of approximately 600 Alabamians. PARCA’s Spring Quarterly, released earlier this week, details the results of the survey, which, Horn said, has a margin of error of about 4 percent.
Samford and PARCA have been conducting annual polls of public opinion in Alabama since 2007, Horn said. For the past two years, the Alabama Association of School Boards has partnered with the two organizations in the questions asked on the survey specific to education.
“One of the things people might be surprised by is just how consistent the results are over time,” Horn said. “We find that when we ask similar questions over time the public tends to give similar responses. People have a tendency to think public opinion is something that is mutable or the public is fickle, but we really see a lot of consistency in people’s views on key topics related to public policy.”
The survey shows that policy in the state doesn’t always perfectly reflect the will of the majority.
“As a general rule, I would say that there’s a difference between politics and policy, and that for the most part Alabamians have a set of policy goals in common,” Horn said. “In all these areas the uniform theme is that the public takes these issues seriously and would like for there to be serious improvements in public policy in these areas.”
In a state where prison overcrowding has become the norm and where Gov. Robert Bentley has refused to expand the Medicare rolls, despite the fact that it would further reduce the number of those without health insurance, majorities of those polled indicate that they see the need for change.
According to PARCA’s summary of the results, “The PARCA poll found strong support for increased spending on a variety of educational priorities. It also found public support for more investment in rehabilitation of prisoners in the interest of cutting down on criminal recidivism. Also, a majority of those polled said they support expanding Medicaid to cover more low-income individuals, including childless adults.”
PARCA’s poll indicates that with the exception of Medicaid expansion, where there was substantial difference along partisan ideological lines, most of the subjects in the survey found “broadly-based public consensus,” and “widely shared priorities.” The poll was weighted demographically, and included people who were identified as Democrats, Independents and Republicans.
Alabamians rank education funding as the most important area for the state to invest in, followed, in order, by healthcare, public safety and highways, according to the poll.
“While we did not see polarization across different demographic groups, there were a few differences in the ways different groups evaluated these budget areas,”the PARCA Quarterly summary, which was written by Horn, said. “For example, those with higher levels of education or income were more likely to rank education as the most important service than those with lower levels of education or income. Younger respondents and African-American respondents were also more likely to select education as the most important service the state provides.”
About 63 percent of the survey respondents said they’d be willing to pay higher taxes to avoid more cuts in public education. Fifty-seven percent said they’d pay more to keep from cutting healthcare.
Although there was a clear majority saying they’d pay more to keep the public safety budgets from being cut (just over 51 percent) the margin was slimmer, with 43 percent saying they would not pay more taxes to prevent reductions in public safety and 6 percent having no opinion at all.
“Comparing the 2015 results to previous years, one can see that 2015 respondents appear to be more willing to pay taxes to avoid cuts in every budget area,” Horn wrote in the PARCA Quarterly. “The differences in healthcare and highways are within the margin of error, but the education and public safety percentages represent significant increases over previous years.
“It is possible that a strengthening state economy contributes to this pattern. If this were the case, however, one would expect similar gains across all categories and not substantial gains in only two. Alternatively, respondents may be more aware of the need for investment in these areas, due to public and media attention to such efforts as the state’s Plan 2020 for educational improvement and the work of the Alabama Prison Reform Task Force. For whatever reason, the increased willingness to pay taxes for education and public safety seems to reflect a change in public preferences and not simply a fluke of sampling.
“Whether the public will support specific proposals remains to be seen.”
When it comes to education spending — always a topic of controversy in Alabama — the results of the poll might be unexpected by some.
Summarizing those findings, PARCA said that “79 percent of Alabamians believe that the level of funding in schools does make a difference in the quality of education provided. And 67 percent believe that too little is being spent on public education in Alabama. However, 63 percent of those polled said they thought that the money that currently goes to education is not being spent properly. Some of that sentiment may reflect Alabamians’ general distrust of government.”
On the other hand, PARCA’s analysis suggests that the reason for the mistrust might relate to evidence seen in the classroom related to inadequate funding: “Respondents pointed to old and tattered textbooks or parents having to pay for classroom supplies as evidence that money in education was not being properly spent.”
Majorities said that Alabama should spend more money in schools on pre-kindergarten classes (54.1 percent); music and the arts (56.2 percent); textbooks (56.7 percent); teacher professional development (60.5 percent); school security (64.7 percent); hiring more teachers (66.8 percent); teacher salaries (70 percent); classroom technology (71.3 percent); and classroom supplies (72.9 percent).
In the area of school buses and transportation, however, there was a significant split between those who felt more money was needed (39.6 percent) and those who felt no increase was needed (43.6 percent). And while 48.3 percent reported they feel that the state needs to spend more on school counselors, 30.5 percent of respondents disagreed.
Substantially lower percentages of survey respondents indicated that they believed Alabama needed to spend less on any of the categories of school funding.
Overall, the survey indicates that rather than being apathetic about the state of poorer schools, a significant majority believes “that the state should play a role in equalizing funding for school systems that lack resources,” PARCA’s summary said. More than 83 percent of survey respondents said the state should make up the difference for poor schools, while only 10.5 percent disagreed and 6 percent had no opinion.
The survey asked about the monetary gap between the best- and worst-funded public schools in Alabama created because some communities collect additional taxes for schools over and above what comes from the state and local levels. The lowest funded system in 2014 was about $1,500 per student below the state average, the surveyors said, “which amounts to about 30,000 fewer dollars for a classroom of 20 students.
“Some people,” the survey asked, “think this gap is too big while others think it is not a problem. How about you? Do you think the funding gap is too big or is it not a problem?”
About a quarter of respondents said that gap was not a problem. Slightly more than 63 percent saw a problem in the disparity between the best-funded and worst-funded schools in Alabama.
One of the questions on the survey asked, “How well do you think Alabama public schools do compared to schools in other states? On average would you say public schools in our state perform worse than schools in most states, perform as well as schools in the average state, or do we have one of the better-performing school systems in the nation?”
Of those polled, 45.76 percent of respondents said that Alabama’s schools are worse than most, while 38.61 percent believe that Alabama schools are “as well as average.” Only 7.56 percent believed that Alabama has one of the best school systems in the country, while 8.07 percent had no opinion.
In a comparison with last year’s survey results, the PARCA Quarterly noted that, “in 2014… when we asked what should be the goal for public school performance, a majority said that Alabama should strive to be one of the top ranked states for public education in the county. Over 68 percent said that Alabama should be in the top half of all states or higher. Public perception of performance falls short of public expectations.”
A large majority — slightly more than 70 percent — believes that the state needs to keep the education budget separate from the general fund budget, while 20 percent favor combining Alabama’s two budgets into one, which would give legislators more control over the money.
“While keeping the education budget separate from the general fund may limit the ability of lawmakers to shift money to pressing priorities, it gives the public a sense of control over the allocation of resources,” PARCA Quarterly reported. “The high level of support for keeping the two state budgets separate suggests a lack of trust in the Legislature’s commitment to reflect the citizens’ spending priorities.”
Horn said that the survey results on education are largely the same as those from polls dating back to 1993, demonstrating that Alabamians believe “that too little is spent on public education in Alabama.”
“The public has a value and I guess what we have not seen is policies that have responded to that,” Horn said. “So I think there’s a great thirst for improvement in our public education system. … We’ve had very consistent results over time. The public’s desire for improvement has not been satisfied.”
The state pen
For the first time this year, the PARCA poll included questions about the correctional system in the state. Alabama’s prison system continues to demonstrate a long history of troubles, with one of the biggest issues being persistent overcrowding. Survey respondents indicated specifically how Alabamians think state government should spend money to fix overcrowding.
At the top of the list is improving efforts at rehabilitating inmates.
“We asked questions about what the public thought the purposes of the corrections system are and the public values protecting the public from offenders and rehabilitation of offenders over punishment…,” Horn said.
“We also asked about correction system performance, and the public thinks we do a better job of keeping offenders separated from the public and punishing offenders than we do of rehabilitating. … That’s an opportunity for improvement,” Horn noted.
“As the state grapples with a prison overcrowding problem, public support for increased investment in rehabilitation and treatment is stronger than support for simply building more prison space,” PARCA’s summary said.
Alleviating prison overcrowding is much in discussion currently with legislation proposing ways of dealing with the issue, Horn said.
“We see majority support for all of the steps that could be taken to relieve overcrowding,” he said. “However, there’s a great deal of support for increasing investment in rehabilitation programs and the shifting of nonviolent offenders to community programs and out of prisons.”
Among those surveyed, 51.7 percent agree, while 28.3 percent strongly agree, that the state should invest more in prisoner rehabilitation so inmates won’t become repeat offenders. On the question of finding ways of safely moving nonviolent inmates to the community to alleviate prison overcrowding, 56.7 agree and 19.1 strongly agree that the state should make such efforts.
A sharp division emerged when the survey asked for agreement or disagreement on the question of sentencing only violent offenders to prison while supervising others in the community. While 50.5 percent strongly agreed or agreed that only violent criminals should go to prison, 42.61 percent disagreed or strongly disagreed with that idea.
A total of 51.4 percent of respondents believe that Alabama needs to build more prisons — 41 percent agree, along with the 10.4 percent who strongly agree. But 35 percent disagree with building more prisons while 8.6 percent strongly disagree that Alabama needs more correctional facilities.
The survey indicates that most Alabamians believe Medicaid, which provides insurance for the poor and elderly, is a good thing to spend state money on. Seventy-one percent rated Medicaid as “very important” and 23.6 percent rated it as “somewhat important.”
A majority also believes that the state should expand Medicaid. The question put to respondents was, “The federal government offers matching funds to states that expand coverage for low income adults. Do you think Alabama should accept the federal funds to expand health-care coverage under Medicaid or maintain its Medicaid program as is?”
The response: 52.58 percent said expand Medicaid, while slightly more than 38 percent said keep the program as is.
“However,” the PARCA analysis said, “it should be noted that this was the one question in the survey that produced a division along party lines. Nearly 76 percent of those identifying themselves as Democrats favored expansion, and expansion was supported by 53 percent of those who classified themselves as either independents or as having no partisan affiliation. However, among Republicans, 54 percent supported keeping Alabama Medicaid as it currently is, rather than expanding it.”
“The Medicaid program is valued even though the public is divided on the question of Medicaid expansion,” Horn said. “A majority do support expansion, but that’s the one question on which we see polarization in the public. The overwhelming majority of Democrats favor Medicaid expansion and a slight majority of Republicans oppose it.
“For the most part there is agreement that Medicaid is an important program and that its something the state needs to have and needs to invest in, even if there’s only a slight majority in favor of Medicaid expansion and that majority reflects some polarization in underlying public opinion.”
The PARCA survey, or the implications of it, gives an indication of how public governance may differ — or may have to differ — in a political climate controlled by a supermajority from one party.
“We hear a lot about the political differences between groups in power,” Horn said. “One way to think about that is in terms of what candidates need to say in order to draw distinctions between themselves and the opposition.
“In situations where there’s a likelihood of changing control of the legislature, you expect there to be a polarization of that kind of rhetoric in the terms of the political positions that people take. … We see that in the U.S. Congress. With the possibility of an alternation in partisan control of that chamber, there’s sort of a greater emphasis on taking political positions.
“But we’re entering a period in Alabama politics where it doesn’t look as if we’re in for a bunch of alternation of control of the state legislature,” he said. “So there’s an opportunity for the majority to get serious about making policy. There’s not the same possibility or threat of loss of control. In fact, it may be that if the majority wants to stay the majority, it might need to show results.”
On the other hand, the PARCA Quarterly took note of the fact that every year since 2007 PARCA has included questions relating to government responsiveness to what the people indicate they want.
“While there has been some fluctuation over the years, the responses have been fairly consistent,” the quarterly report said. “Just over three-fifths agree or strongly agree with the statement, ‘Government officials in Montgomery do not especially care what people like me think.’ Similarly, just over half agree or strongly agree with the statement, ‘People like me have no say in what the government in Montgomery does.’
“These results have persisted across multiple elections, the incumbency of a number of state officials, and a change in partisan control of the legislature, indicating that they represent a durable public opinion that the performance of state government needs improvement in this area.”
To see more of the results and PARCA’s analysis, visit, http://parca.samford.edu/parca2/newsletters/Spring2015.pdf.