Minnesotans have little taste for higher taxes that would hit most people's pocketbooks, but two-thirds would offer up the wallets of richer folks to help solve the state's budget woes, a Star Tribune Minnesota Poll has found.
When it comes to a broader increase -- income tax hikes for most Minnesotans -- nearly 60 percent said that would be unacceptable.
Half of the poll respondents said they think the state should use a combination of unspecified tax increases and spending cuts to help erase the state's $4.6 billion deficit, while another 40 percent said the balancing should be achieved primarily through spending cuts alone. Only 4 percent favored squaring the books primarily with tax increases.
"I don't know why people should be punished for being successful," said Sarah Dawdy, 61, a retired business manager in Pequot Lakes. "For me, that's totally against what the free enterprise system is."
Dawdy said she and her husband have watched their once-healthy retirement portfolio wither away by more than half. They've halted remodeling projects, ditched travel plans and seldom eat out anymore.
"We're learning to live on less and cut way, way back," Dawdy said. "State and federal governments better do the same. They're bloated."
The telephone poll of 1,042 Minnesotans, conducted over four days last week, shows that some taxes attract strong support, in addition to income tax hikes on the wealthy. About 70 percent of respondents said a higher tax on tobacco and alcoholic beverages would be acceptable and 57 percent said they'd back higher corporate taxes.
But another general sales tax increase? An extension of the sales tax to clothing? Even though Minnesotans passed a constitutional amendment imposing a sales tax increase in November for environment and arts spending, 60 percent said they oppose another general sales tax increase and 63 percent said no to a tax on clothing.
Few would cut schools, health
Support for spending cuts starts to evaporate when the cuts move from the abstract to the specific.
When asked about specific trims, three-quarters of respondents opposed cuts to K-12 spending or health care assistance for the low-income and elderly -- two items that together make up 70 percent of the state's budget. Large majorities also said they oppose cuts to higher education or public safety and courts.
Only state aid to local governments is considered acceptable by a bare majority: 51 percent.
Eric Paulson, 32, has been battling cancer for four months in his Preston, Minn., home. A part-time disc jockey for the local radio station, Paulson supplements his income bagging groceries. "I wouldn't have been able to afford the treatments without MinnesotaCare," he said. Without additional revenue, the state would have to eliminate more than 100,000 people from eligibility for the state's subsidized insurance program.
If police and courts are cut, Paulson said, "then you're jeopardizing public safety, and society in general pays. Schools? Both of my parents are teachers. You need well-read individuals for a functioning society."
Women favor "sin taxes"
Women are exceptionally supportive of increases in so-called sin taxes. Nearly 80 percent of them said the state should increase cigarette taxes to help balance the budget, and more than 80 percent say alcohol taxes should be increased for the same reason. Cigarette taxes were last raised in 2005, through the creation of a "health impact fee." The overall tax rate on liquor has not been raised in 20 years.
"I don't smoke or drink, so it doesn't matter to me," said Mary Brink, 83, of Minneapolis.
State workers are targeted
State workers have found themselves a target as state revenues shrink. Gov. Tim Pawlenty called for a two-year wage freeze and for the ability to furlough state employees for as many as 48 days over two years. A tentative contract agreement between the state and the two largest public employee unions, reached after the questioning in this poll had begun, includes a wage freeze but leaves the furlough issue in dispute.
In the Minnesota Poll, a wage freeze for state and local workers drew strong support, with 70 percent calling such a proposal "reasonable."
Nearly 60 percent said up to 24 days of furloughs in each of the next two years would also be reasonable.
Wendy Moravec is a U.S. postal worker, but she thinks a wage freeze on state and local government workers wouldn't be a bad idea. "Heck, we don't get our cost of living until 2011," said Moravec, 45, of Faribault. Moravec, like many others, said she is just glad to have her job at all.
Moravec said she's already started bracing herself for tax increases and quickly ran down her list of preferences. The wealthy should kick in a little more because "the more you make the more they take, right?" she said. A smoker, Moravec she would rather see a clothing tax than another hike to her cigarettes. "I'm not growing anymore," she said with a chuckle, "so I don't need that many clothes, but I haven't been able to stop smoking."
Patricia Lopez • 651-222-1288