by Lowman S. Henry | January 31, 2003

It is, perhaps, a normal human reaction. As the old saying goes, we always want to have our cake and eat it too. So it is probably predictable that when it comes to government spending, and the taxes to support that spending, that old adage would apply.

In late January the Lincoln Institute of Public Opinion Research conducted a statewide poll of Pennsylvania voters to take their pulse on the key issues facing state government as a new governor and legislature got down to work.

Predictably, the poll found voters thinking they are overtaxed. I say “predictably” because, of course, we are overtaxed. Much ado has been made over the fact the state will again face a budget deficit in the coming fiscal year. When asked what should be done about the problem, 57% of the voters polled said the state should reduce spending and eliminate programs. Only 22% thought their taxes should be raised and program spending maintained.

Voters also expressed a strong desire for more control over their own tax destiny. Seventy-six percent said they would support a state constitutional amendment that would require voter approval for statewide tax increase that exceeds the rate of inflation. Eighty-six percent of the taxpayers polled said they want the right to vote on any property tax increase enacted by their school districts. Again, not a surprising result given the fact the rate of school district tax increases has vastly outpaced the rate of inflation for decades.

The anti-tax sentiments of Pennsylvania voters were also on display when asked about the inheritance, or death tax. Forty-three percent want the tax eliminated and state spending cut, another 22% said the tax should be reduced. Only 15% want to keep the death tax at its current, oppressive level.

If you couple the fact that voters express such clear sentiments for tax cuts and more direct control over taxation levels with the fact school districts and state government in particular engaged in out-of-control spending during the go-go years of the mid-to-late 1990’s, a problem clearly emerges.

Those programs school directors and legislators created and funded are now part of the landscape, and taking away from people something they have is a very difficult proposition for an elected official.

The mixed message from voters comes in when you ask them about their support for spending on specific programs. Much like voters hate Congress but love their Congressman; voters hate spending, but love the programs that benefit them. For example, we asked if Pennsylvania spends too much, about the right amount, or not enough money on public education. Fifty-one percent said not enough, only 12% said too much.

So, the same sample of voters that expressed such strong opposition to taxes and spending, also felt more money should be spent by the government on education. For some reason there seems to be a disconnect when it comes to tax increases and what causes them, which of course is higher spending. Perhaps the middle ground is spending less, but spending more efficiently.

In the meantime, would you like a fork for you cake?

(Lowman Henry is Chairman & CEO of the Lincoln Institute of Public Opinion Research, Inc., a Harrisburg-based non-profit, educational foundation. His Keystone Commentaries are heard statewide on Lincoln Radio Journal.)