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Budget Priorities, According to the Taxpayers

October 7, 2010

We are all polled out when it comes to the governor’s race. Not another survey on whether Carl Paladino has gone too far. Please.

We can, however, get into a fascinating study of taxpayers’ views on how to solve state budget problems, and you should, too.

The Pew Center surveyed one thousand residents in each of five states – Arizona, California, Florida, Illinois and New York. Residents were asked for their take on what elected officials should do to confront budget shortfalls.

New York policymakers take note:

1. Spend less: Two out of three residents say their state government could spend less and still provide the same level of services. Most think cuts of 10 percent to 20 percent or more are possible.

2. Protect the essentials: Solid majorities in all five states want to see education and health care funding protected.

3.  Tax someone else: If taxes are necessary, people would prefer to charge smokers, drinkers, gamblers and corporations.

4. No more borrowing:  Given three choices to balance state budgets, more than two-thirds of residents in all five states pick spending cuts first;  tax increases second; and borrowing last.

5.  Reform is a must. Across all five states, two-thirds or more of respondents report that they do not trust state government to do what is right. Residents overwhelmingly believe their state should pursue major reforms to their budget processes.

Now the reality check:

1. The easy spending reductions, that is, cuts the public won’t notice, have already occurred. Future spending reductions almost necessarily will impact services.

2. Education and health spending accounts for more than two-thirds of state budgets.  Without some reductions in these areas, massive cuts in other areas would be required to balance the budget.

3. Revenue raisers that people can tolerate— taxes on smokers, drinkers, gamblers —would not be sufficient to address budget shortfalls, and taxes on business harm the economy.

4. People get voted out of office not for increasing borrowing, but raising taxes.

5. Budget reform won’t eliminate the need for hard decisions on spending.

Our takeaway from the Pew study is that we are obviously not alone in New York in confronting major budget problems and there really is no easy answer to the problems.

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