When There’s No More Fat to Trim: State Budgets and Public Opinion

When voters go to the polls on November 2nd, they won’t just be voting for national offices. Across the country there are many tightly contested state elections. While these races do not garner as much attention, they are arguably more important for inequality. This is because education, and most of the means-tested programs that serve disadvantaged populations in the United States, are delivered and partially financed by state government.

With this in mind, it is worth checking out the results of a June 2010 Pew opinion poll of residents in five of the most populous states: Florida, Arizona, New York, Illinois, and California. The full report is full of interesting data, but I want to briefly highlight attitudes about public spending.

Respondents want Government to Both Cut Spending and Preserve Services

A majority in all states claim to be concerned about the effect of budget cuts on services, but they also say that the best way to balance the state budget is to cut spending. On its face, this seems like a fairly contradictory stance. Anyone who has tried to make sense of public opinion can tell you that there are many inconsistencies in individual preferences. Part of the contradiction may stem from people’s understanding of the problem — they have views about how their government runs (inefficiently) and also views about what their government should do (deliver basic services). Overall, most respondents to the poll felt that the problem was not the size of their government, but the amount of wasteful spending.

The reality, as the report notes, is that states have already made painful cuts. While most Democrats and Republican analysts agree that the solution to state budgetary problems is not rooting out more waste, it is politically easier to talk about waste in the system than to address structural deficiencies.

Respondents are Willing to Pay More Taxes, But they Mainly Want the “Other Guy” to Pay

A solid majority in the red and blue states (63-71%) say that they are willing to pay more taxes to preserve K-12 education, and majorities also are willing to pay higher taxes to preserve Medicaid benefits. Still, when asked about the best way to raise revenue, most people say that other people — corporations, smokers, gamblers, and drinkers — should pay through higher taxes. Independent of whether one thinks that this is a fair or sensible way to raise taxes, there is simply not enough money that can be raised through targeted taxes. For example, doubling the tobacco tax in New York state (where cigarettes are already highly taxed) would still leave a budget shortfall of $6 billion.

Two quick points:

State budgets are going to get worse before they get better. The massive federal stimulus (ARRA), helped to soften the blow of the recession on state economies. There is still lots of “negative equity” in the real estate market, which is a threat to both home prices (thus property taxes) and to the financial security of households. States still need to figure out how to make up massive budget shortfalls, and many still do not have a coherent budgetary plan.

We are miles away from an honest public discussion about state finances. The California governor’s race, which I have been following peripherally, has not shown a comprehensive budget plan from either candidate. Here’s Jerry Brown’s plan. Here’s Meg Whitman’s. Neither provides much details about the kinds of sacrifices that will have to be made to services.

Buried in here there is an opportunity for state governments to educate their constituents about the size of their programs and how they are delivered, and for citizens to lay out their own priorities for services. This most would be the most fair way forward, and might also resolve confusion among voters — regrettably, politics has not caught up with moral imperatives yet.

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About Brendan Saloner

I am a postdoctoral fellow at the University of Pennsylvania in the Robert Wood Johnson Health and Society Scholars Program. I completed a PhD in health policy at Harvard in 2012. My current research focuses on children's health, public programs, racial/ethnic disparities, and mental health. I am also interested in justice and health care.
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One Response to When There’s No More Fat to Trim: State Budgets and Public Opinion

  1. Pingback: Highlights so far… | Inequalities

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