While state leaders are locked in a battle over the best way to balance the state's budget, a strong majority of Minnesotans say they want a solution that mixes tax hikes and spending reductions, according to a new Star Tribune Minnesota Poll.

Sixty-three percent of respondents said they favor a blend of higher taxes and service reductions to tackle the state's $5 billion projected deficit. Just 27 percent said they want state leaders to balance the budget solely through cuts.

The poll comes as the Republican-led Legislature and the DFL governor head into the final week of a legislative session still dug in on their vastly different approaches to balancing the budget.

Dayton said the results show the public backs his position. Republicans said the results run counter to last fall's election and what they are hearing from Minnesotans.

"It's very, very strong support for my position," Dayton said of the poll results. "I think the public is absolutely on my side in support of a balanced approach."

House Majority Leader Matt Dean, R-Dellwood, said the message to lawmakers by voters was that "government has a spending problem.''

"It does not have a taxing problem ... it's about the spending and we have to address it once and for all," Dean said.

Some poll respondents said that Minnesota has limped along for too many years patching its budget with shifts and by drawing down reserves.

"We need more revenue," said Robert Peters, 78, a DFLer from Cloquet. "We are in a deficit, and we need more money."

Dayton's proposal to raise taxes on high earners has substantial, but far from universal, support. Overall, 39 percent say their first preference is raising taxes on high earners.

A slightly smaller number, 37 percent, want lawmakers to look first at raising taxes on alcohol and cigarettes. Twelve percent of respondents prefer increasing fees for government services.

Any legislator hoping to introduce a last-minute proposal to raise the sales tax, take note: Just 7 percent of Minnesotans prefer that idea.

If taxes are raised, 57 percent of DFL respondents would raise income taxes on high earners. Republicans and independents preferred -- by 45 percent and 40 percent, respectively -- a hike on cigarettes and alcohol.

Mary Lou Bauer, 75, says that a tax increase would punish what she sees as the job creators and economic engines of the state.

"Taxing the rich is definitely not acceptable," said Bauer, a homemaker from Hampton.

Five percent of respondents, mostly Republicans, found none of the tax options acceptable.

Mass transit is target of cuts

For budget cuts, nearly half set their sights on a single target: mass transit.

Asked to choose among several options, 48 percent of respondents favored transit costs as a prime target for cuts. Fifty-nine percent of Republicans said it should be the first area cut.

The next most popular target -- but far below -- is cutting aid to colleges and universities. Fifteen percent of respondents said higher education should get the first cut. Thirteen percent of respondents preferred further cuts in aid to local governments.

Ranking dead last was one of the largest areas of state spending: Health care for low income, disabled and elderly residents. Only 8 percent of respondents said those cuts should be a priority.

This highlights one of the troubles in balancing the state's ledger. Minnesota's budget isn't divided into equal slices. Some of the most popular cuts would do little to pare the budget.

For instance, the health and human services agency makes up roughly 33 percent of the state's $32 billion two-year budget. Yet, it's the area where respondents least want to see cuts.

Transportation was the most popular cut, but too little is spent there to achieve meaningful savings. Advocates howled last week when House and Senate leaders slashed Twin Cities bus and rail funding. The total savings -- $109 million -- is a tiny sliver of the state budget.

That situation has brought Linda Fischer to what she says is a bleak realization.

"No matter what anybody says, taxes are going to have to be raised," said Fischer, an independent from Staples. But she insists that any tax increases must be met with equal part cuts.

"The more you give those idiots, the more they spend," said Fischer, 59. "I am not a big government person, but you have to be realistic."

On the question of taxes versus reductions, 548 respondents were contacted between May 6 and May 9. That question has a margin of error of plus or minus 5.7 percentage points. On the questions of where to cut or raise taxes, 806 respondents were contacted between May 2 and May 5. Those questions have a margin of error of plus or minus 4.7 percentage points.

Baird Helgeson • 651-222-1288