Voters say schools underfunded
Half of respondents would support tax hike for education, with other cuts
Monday, September 25, 2006SPRINGFIELD - A large number of Illinois voters believe the state's public schools are inadequately funded, and half of them would support an income or sales tax hike for education, a new Copley News Service poll shows.
However, the poll also shows only tepid response to the ideas of selling the state lottery or placing a casino in Chicago. Gov. Rod Blagojevich has proposed the lottery sale as a way to raise money for education while his Republican opponent, Treasurer Judy Baar Topinka, wants to place a casino in Chicago to boost state revenues.
Mason-Dixon Polling and Research Inc. of Washington, D.C., conducted the poll of 625 registered voters Sept. 19-21. The poll has a margin of error of 4 percent.
Asked if they thought public schools in Illinois are adequately funded, 61 percent said "no," while only 30 percent said they think schools have enough money. Another 9 percent said they were not sure.
State Rep. Don Moffitt, R-Gilson, said he believes an even higher percentage of his constituents don't think schools are adequately funded. State Rep. Richard M. Myers, R-Colchester, said the majority of his constituents don't think schools are adequately funded and that school funding is one of voters' top three concerns.
"It is right up there with jobs and the economy," Myers said.
In the poll, Republican voters thought schools were better off than voters who called themselves Democrats or independents, but the numbers still were not good. The poll showed 38 percent of Republicans thought schools were adequately funded, while 46 percent said schools need more money. Only 23 percent of Democrats said schools are adequately funded, as did 29 percent of voters who identified themselves as independents.
For decades, state officials have struggled unsuccessfully to devise a school funding plan that places less emphasis on local property taxes and more on state funding. Most of the plans - none of which has ever passed the General Assembly - call for an increase in the income or sales tax and a corresponding reduction in property taxes.
The poll asked voters if they would support an increase in the income or sales tax to boost state funding for schools "if it were paired with a partial, but not dollar for dollar, reduction of property taxes ..." Statewide, 50 percent of respondents said they would support such an increase, while 38 percent were opposed. Another 12 percent were undecided.
Mason-Dixon managing director Brad Coker said the results should be read with caution.
"That's not surprising results for a poll question," Coker said. "There's nothing more popular than schools. But history has shown that when these sorts of things get put on a ballot and people have to vote to raise their taxes, they generally don't."
It also means that a lawmaker who votes to raise either the income or sales tax could still be vulnerable at the next election, Coker said.
However, Ralph Martire of the Center for Tax and Budget Accountability argued that voters are ahead of politicians when it comes to school funding.
"I think it's very clear voters in Illinois show they pretty much support a tax increase at the state level," Martire said. "The only reason you don't see higher numbers is they don't trust Springfield to deliver the tax relief."
Moffitt agrees, noting "People want some assurances that the money will go to education and that downstate residents will see the benefits." He said voters would be more likely to approve tax increases for education if there was a sunset on it, so that voters would be guaranteed the opportunity to evaluate the effectiveness of the changes three to five years down the road.
Martire also acknowledged that, despite polls showing support for a tax swap, politicians - even those who recognize that school funding needs to be changed - will have a hard time voting for it because their opponents will use any such vote against them in an election campaign.
"It's pretty easy to send an anti-tax message," Martire said.
Blagojevich has flatly ruled out any increase in the income or sales tax during the next four years if he is re-elected. Topinka has said any increase in those taxes should be "a last resort."
Instead, both have offered other ideas for enriching state coffers - but the Copley poll indicates neither idea has overwhelming support among voters.
Blagojevich has proposed selling the state lottery and using the proceeds to increase education funding. The Copley poll shows only 29 percent of respondents favor that idea, while 49 percent oppose it. Another 22 percent are undecided.
Topinka's idea to put a casino in Chicago to generate additional gambling revenue for Illinois has more support, but still not from a majority of respondents. The poll shows that 46 percent of voters favor the casino idea; 40 percent oppose it and 14 percent are undecided. In Cook County, which includes Chicago, 53 percent support the casino and 38 percent oppose it. It is the only part of the state where more than half of the respondents supported a Chicago casino.
Moffitt and Myers both said they do not think either plan is a viable, long-term solution to school funding woes.
"If the lottery is a money-maker, I think it should continue to be a money-maker," Moffitt said. "We should not sell it, because we would be giving it up for a short-term infusion of cash. I think education should be a priority and not something you leave to gambling revenues. Our kids are our priority and we should be willing to pay for a quality education and not depend on gambling to do that."
Voters also weren't too thrilled with the idea of expanding the number of gaming positions at existing casinos, another part of Topinka's plan. Only 35 percent of respondents said they support the idea, while 47 percent said they oppose it.
That may reflect voters' predominant feeling that legalized gambling has had a negative effect on the quality of life in the state. Asked whether gambling has had a positive or negative effect on the state, only 16 percent said it's made Illinois a better place. Thirty-eight percent said the effects have been negative, while 42 percent think it's had no impact one way or another.