Monday, February 26, 2007

Don't Be Fooled: Polling Shows Cig Tax for Kids a Political Winner

Other than Measure 37, I would say that no issue before the Legislature so far has attracted as much attention as Goobernor Ted's plan to pay for universal child health care by taxing cigarettes an additional 84 cents per pack. Nothing gets the Oregon press corps excited like an attempt to raise taxes, because they know that generally speaking, Republicans will give plenty of good quote in railing against the evils of tax collection and the rapacious state government, while Democrats will flinch a bit and try to justify the tax as necessary (as opposed to, say, blasting the GOP for misleadingly trying to pretend low taxes and good public services are simultaneously possible).

The added kicker to this particular tax debate is twofold: first, because as a revenue raising bill it needs 36 votes for passage instead of the simple 31-vote majority, there is interest as to the strength of the Democratic leadership and their ability to sway a few Republicans on legislation the Dems want passed. Right now they have one, Vicki Berger, but as The O's Harry Esteve reports, Wayne Scott is claiming they're not going to get four more.

The other buzz regards the source of the new tax money: smokers. There has been much hue and cry--even among progressives--over the fact that people who are addicted to a substance are being asked to shoulder the burden of paying for child health care. I don't intend to further either the argument or the rebuttal here; as I said there's already been plenty of that.

But posing ethical and financial questions around taxing smokers is definitely the tack opponents are taking, and if Scott thinks he has the votes against it, I assume he is banking on unfairness to smokers to be one of his selling points keeping the coalition together. Rather than asking if he has the votes, I think the more important question is whether he has the popular support. By telegraphing his read of the vote count, Scott is trying to avoid a vote altogether, but in the event of a vote he is calculating that a vote to stop the health care plan will not give his party trouble in local elections in 2008. Is it a smart calculation?

I haven't asked him personally, but I bet if you asked new Democrat Ben Westlund whether taxing smokers to give kids health care was a political winner, he'd say yes. His citizen's campaign to do much the same as Kulongoski proposes failed to make the ballot, but from polling Westlund has been passing along to key players, the problem looks like it was money and not disfavor that killed the measure.

In a bit of a recurring deja vu for us here at LO, Westlund and the rest of the bipartisan campaign team commissioned Moore Information last year for a series of questions testing their ballot title and other formulations regarding tobacco. I don't believe the results were widely released at the time, but about now it suddenly becomes pretty useful. And the very best part is that for once I can offer the entire question text verbatim, in order. I've done so, here on our new Google Docs storage space.

Conducted just over a year ago, the sample of 400 respondents is fairly small, but certainly within about 5-6 points' margin at the 95% confidence level. I'd like to ideally see 800 or 600, but 400 is not so low as to make the result suspect. It's as low as I'd go in sanctioning a statewide survey, put it that way, but acceptable. The sample appears derived from registered voter numbers, since there isn't a screening question about registration. That's also fine, as long as it was a randomly derived sample of numbers from that group.

The only question prior to the ballot title test is a right track/wrong track item, which by the way indicated a 56-32 negative split--actually fairly low even for early 2006, compared to national polling from that time. That's the perfect placement for your keynote question--no other substantive questions beforehand, much less lead-in questions on the topic at issue:
Here is the title of a measure you may be asked to vote on in a future election: "Provides health insurance to all uninsured children under age 19; increases tobacco taxes; funds other programs" If the election were held today, would you vote "yes" to approve or "no" to reject this measure? (IF YES/NO:) Is that definitely yes/no or probably yes/no?

definitely yes 142 36%
probably yes 115 29% (64%)

(DON'T READ) don't know 45 11%

probably no 31 8% (25%)
definitely no 67 17%
You almost could stop right there--the total Yes votes outstrip the total No tally by over two to one. Checking the depth of support, strong supporters outpoll strong opponents, again by a factor of two. Barring some unexplained reversal of attitudes in the last 12 months, there's no mistaking the support for the concept of the Healthy Kids Plan.

Some caveats: the actual amount of the tax and resultant funding (ie revenue) are left unsaid, as are the "other programs." On the other hand, by explicitly referring to (the apparently previously vetted) ballot title, there's symmetry between what they're being asked in the poll, and what they'd face on their ballots. In the legislature's version the tax amount ($.84/pack), revenue (about $85mil) and other programs (smoking cessation, et al) are points for haggling and compromise, but simply on principle the governor and majority legislative leadership are spoiling for the right fight.

The next question is what's often called an "informed ballot test;" it refers to the fact that additional information about the bill's implementation or effects have been provided, and/or those of the alternative (ie, what happens with a No vote). The results actually strongly bolster the original question, because the response breakdown for the informed question are almost exactly the same--meaning that there's little chance of distortion in the first question, where it might have been seen as vague or unclear.

Another common argument against the cigarette tax related to the perception of unfairness is reflected in the rationales for why voters supported the bill (Q4). The top two reasons for support are the need to provide adequate medical care in general and specifically care for children, so the sponsors' rationale for the bill is clear to voters.

The next three reasons cited for support all refer to what bill opponents characterize as an ultimate goal to ban smoking entirely--that smoking is dangerous, cigarette taxes are too low, and that it's fair to make smokers pay for at least some of it--but no single item was mentioned by more than 6% of the sample...hardly a robust complaint in this context. Among opponents, however, the issue IS in fact about unfairness to smokers and the current tax burden, although even these rationales failed to garner support from even one in five opponents.

When directly asked the question abot fairness as in Q22A, voters are actually split, with those finding the tax not unfair holding the slight edge. However, echoing the lack of serious angst shown by most in opposing the bill, response for Q24A and Q25A illustrates that when forced to choose between kids and smokers, voters pretty much pick the kids. A near-majority 49% disagreed that taxing smokers is NOT the way to pay for child health care. Question 27B reinforces that position; almost 60% disagree that the tax's effectively regressive nature (ie, poor people will end up paying more of their relative income on it) is a reason to reject it.

Another protest has been that higher taxes will drive the black market and internet sales through the roof. Oregonians don't seem to think so; 60% disagreed that revenue would be adversely affected.

The only argument against the bill that I've seen that is even remotely corroborated by this poll is this one:

Cigarette taxes are an unstable source of revenue. The state should not rely on cigarette taxes for such an important program as health insurance for children.

Strongly agree 57 29%
Somewhat agree 54 27% (56%)

(DON'T READ) Don't know 10 5%

Somewhat disagree 45 23% (40%)
Strongly disagree 34 17%
I really don't think that even supporters would argue about this; in the end indigent health care should be a fundament of every session's spending bill, with a reliable income stream and a recognition of its supreme importance to the health and welfare of the state. Unfortunately, it also seems wrong to dither and do nothing because the conditions are not perfectly favorable for such changes yet. If this will work for a few years, the moral position is to go ahead and fund it this way temporarily, while seeking a more permanent solution.

It's just one poll--I'm a little disappointed The O hasn't yet paid for Tim Hibbitts to do his own survey in the run-up to the floor voting--but it's a remarkably stable one in terms of the results, and I'm satisfied with the objective construction of the question set. Even if the numbers are somewhat off, they still show statewide support that is well above the majority level. The demographic questions indicate that the sample was well-aligned with reality; the party registration breakdowns (39/36/25) are almost exactly right on. I did find one nod to Moore-ian conservatism; the question on personal ideology featured the answers "very conservative," "conservative," "moderate," and "liberal." I guess moderate is the new liberal, and liberal is the new VERY liberal? Sure, Bob.