This is a good sign, but ensuring that education and health care programs are spared are going to rely heavily on the voice of our communities. The people have to be present in number this session!
Public wants two major areas of budget protected.
By Jason Embry | AMERICAN-STATESMAN STAFF
Sunday, Jan. 9, 2011
More than half of Texas' voters want lawmakers to spare public education and health care programs for children and lower-income families from spending cuts during the legislative session that starts this week, according to a new poll commissioned by the Austin American-Statesman and other newspapers.
Most voters also support an expansion of legalized gambling and keeping a limit on class sizes in elementary schools, while they do not want guns on university campuses.
The responses highlight the challenge awaiting lawmakers in the 140-day regular session that begins Tuesday. They must balance a state budget with a major money shortfall — estimated at $24 billion — caused by the national economic slowdown, a costly reduction in property taxes five years ago and the disappearance of billions of one-time federal stimulus dollars.
Voters gave Republicans an overwhelming victory in November, leaving the GOP with nearly two-thirds of the seats in the Legislature and every statewide office. Many have interpreted the election as a clear call for spending cuts, and in fact, a Texas newspapers poll conducted in the weeks before the election showed that voters prefer spending cuts to higher taxes.
But the new poll shows voters want more than half of the state budget protected.
Some 70 percent of respondents said lawmakers should not cut school spending, and 61 percent said they want no spending cuts on health care programs for children and low- to moderate-income families.
"Everybody would like to make cuts, but it's hard to actually make them where the most spending is," pollster Mickey Blum said.
She said Democrats, Republicans and independents all prefer not to cut education and health care. Also, a majority of poll respondents who voted in the November election oppose cuts to those programs.
Voters who turned out in a strong Republican year but are now reluctant to cut key areas of the state budget may be much more concerned about federal spending than state spending, Blum said. After all, the poll shows that 51 percent of registered voters think Texas is headed in the right direction, compared with 33 percent who said it's on the wrong track.
"There is in general much less anger and opposition to how the state is spending its money than to how the federal government is spending its money," Blum said.
Public education and two major health care programs for lower-income families — Medicaid and the Children's Health Insurance Program — account for more than half of all state spending.
So balancing the budget without touching those programs or increasing taxes would likely require major cuts elsewhere.
Voters are more willing to cut spending on colleges and universities, however. Pollsters found that 41 percent of respondents said lawmakers should cut higher education spending a little, while 12 percent said they should cut it a lot. Still, nearly four in 10 voters said they did not want any spending cuts in higher education.
Emilio Soto of Wilson County, which is east of San Antonio, said he would support small cuts to higher education.
"If you want to go to college, you should pay for it," said Soto. 57, who is retired from the Air Force. "I had to pay for it. That's one of the reasons I made a choice to go into the Air Force."
The gambling industry will mount a spirited lobbying campaign in the coming months to try to persuade lawmakers to create revenue for the state by allowing slot machines at racetracks or the construction of casinos in the state.
The poll found that 58 percent of registered voters support casinos or slots to raise revenue, and most of them support both.
Just 35 percent of respondents said Texas should not allow more gambling.
An expansion of gambling would require approval from the public, which means two-thirds of the House and Senate would have to vote to put it on a public ballot.
Lawmakers who are trying not to offend gambling opponents but also wanting to give casinos and slots at least some measure of support could claim that they wanted to give voters a choice.
"There isn't overwhelming support for increasing gambling, but there is majority support," Blum said.
If tax increases became necessary to balance the budget, voters would be much more likely to support an increase in cigarette taxes than any other increase.
"Not that many people smoke any more," Blum said. "It's easier to impose a cigarette tax if three-quarters of the people don't smoke."
Cigarette and tobacco taxes now generate about $1.6 billion per year for the state.
Some legislators and Comptroller Susan Combs have called for the Legislature to lift the 22-student-per-classroom limit on kindergarten through fourth grade in order to give schools more flexibility and, potentially, allow the state to save hundreds of millions of dollars by laying off teachers and other school employees.
But 61 percent of voters said they oppose raising that limit, while 34 percent support raising it.
Also, lawmakers are likely to consider a proposal to allow holders of concealed-handgun licenses to carry guns in buildings on university campuses. But two-thirds of registered voters in the poll said license-holders should not be allowed to carry guns on campuses.
"I'm not against concealed weapons as an ideological premise, but there are places I'd don't like for them to be," said Ron Spross, 64, a retired physicist from Houston. "I guess campuses are one."