DFL governor candidate Mark Dayton's proposal to reduce the state's deficit by taxing the wealthy has wide support among likely voters this fall -- far ahead of the two other candidates' budget plans, according to a Star Tribune Minnesota Poll.

Faced with a nearly $6 billion state budget gap, more than 60 percent of Minnesotans favor Dayton's plan to raise taxes on top earners. A plan that would reduce services and keep income taxes flat, favored by GOP candidate Tom Emmer, drew the support of 42 percent. The same percentage supported Independence Party candidate Tom Horner's proposal to broaden the sales tax as a means of closing the gap.

The poll of 949 likely voters, including landline and cell phone users, was taken Sept. 20-23 and has a margin of sampling error of plus or minus 4.1 percentage points.

Minnesotans' support for smaller government wanes when education and health care are in the mix.

Asked to choose between cuts to services and "some tax increases," 47 percent supported higher taxes while 42 percent opted for cuts. When K-12 and health care were included -- two items that comprise nearly 70 percent of state spending -- support for reductions in services dropped to 25 percent.

Dayton spokesman Katharine Tinucci said the support for raising taxes on wealthier Minnesotans demonstrates that "people understand that Mark wants to protect the middle class from carrying a heavier tax burden and people are starting to understand that his two opponents have plans that would raise taxes on the middle class."

Emmer spokesman Carl Kuhl said poll respondents might have been more supportive of Emmer's plan if they were told it would still increase spending beyond 2010-11 levels for K-12 education and Health and Human Services, even though that spending would be lower than projected for 2012-13.

"If it were phrased differently, I think the reaction would be different," Kuhl said of the question about spending cuts.

Matt Lewis, a spokesman for Horner, said his plan to expand the sales tax to clothing and some other items might have drawn more support in the poll if the voters were also told that the plan envisions cutting the sales tax rate.

"The devil's in the details," Lewis said.

Dayton's proposal would tax individuals earning $130,000 and couples earning $150,000 at rates as high as 10.9 percent, though his budget plan still falls short of closing the gap.

Horner would make some cuts, but also broaden the state sales tax to include clothing and consumer services as a way to raise revenue.

Emmer has made flat taxes the centerpiece of his budget solution. The state has estimated that it needs $38 billion over two years to maintain current services. Emmer wants to hold spending to the amount of revenue the state expects in that period -- a little over $32 billion.

'Least pain possible'

Larry Hugick, chairman of Princeton Survey Research Associates, which conducted the poll, said the results show many Minnesotans hope the solution to the state's deficit dilemma does not hit their own wallets.

"People tend to support things that either they feel aren't going to affect them directly or are sort of optional," Hugick said. People are looking for a fix "with the least pain possible." More than 70 percent of Minnesotans making between $30,000 and $50,000 favor higher taxes on the wealthy.

"It's a wonderful idea - it's about time that the rich start paying their fair share," said Rebecca Kragnes, a 38-year-old musician from Minneapolis. "The idea that taxes are already too high is silly and just comes from a bunch of Republicans who don't want to pay more."

She said Horner's plan would "hurt a lot of people," describing the former PR exec as "just a Republican in disguise."

Others, like Joy Dillon, are eager to see major shrinkage in government.

"Cut the spending -- everything, starting with the salaries of all those people we've elected," said Dillon, a 50-year-old retired computer industry worker from Fairmont. "There's waste from top to bottom in government. Cut it every which way you can, and that includes schools."

Dillon also supports more general tax increases, including a sales tax on clothes. "Everyone's going to have to feel the pain to get out of this mess we're in," she said.

Fifty-seven-year-old Robert Rabe, of Chatfield, also wants to see cuts in services, particularly welfare.

"Spending on welfare is too much -- it's supposed to be meant to protect people in need, not a way of life," Rabe said. "None of the three impresses me much because they're wishy-washy on what needs to be done about the budget."

Party breakdowns

The results of the poll indicate that independents are leaning toward Dayton's plan to raise taxes on top earners.

"When you look where the independents are on these issues, they're closer to the Democrats," Hugick said.

Sixty percent of independents favor raising the income tax, while 46 percent support expanding the sales tax and 41 percent endorsed a reduction in state services to avoid tax increases.

Eighty-two percent of Democrats favored raising the income tax and 63 percent of Republicans favored a reduction in state services.

Bob von Sternberg • 612-673-7184 Eric Roper • 612-673-1732