October 16, 2002

RALEIGH — With pivotal legislative elections just weeks away, likely voters in North Carolina are critical of recent actions by Gov. Mike Easley and the General Assembly on taxes, local reimbursements, and other issues, according to a public opinion poll released Oct. 17 by the John Locke Foundation.

The survey found that 51 percent of likely voters wanted state budget deficits to be closed by spending cuts alone, with 35 percent favoring a mix of cuts and tax increases and only 7 percent favoring tax increases to preserve programs intact. In fact, Easley and legislators opted to impose more than $1 billion in tax increases over the past two years to help balance the budget.

Furthermore, voters disapproved of Easley’s withholding of tax reimbursements to local governments by an overwhelming 66 percent to 19 percent margin.

The Raleigh-based think tank conducts statewide polls every two years as part of its “Agenda” project, which provides policy recommendations and political analysis in North Carolina state and local elections. The latest “Agenda 2002” poll of 500 likely voters was conducted Oct. 14-16 by Virginia-based Tel Opinion Research. The margin of sampling error is plus or minus 4.5 percentage points.

Public disagreement with recent actions on taxes and local funds may be one reason why the Agenda 2002 poll found low approval ratings for Easley (45 percent) and the General Assembly (34 percent), said John Locke Foundation President John Hood.

“These poll results describe a North Carolina electorate that is dissatisfied with tax increases, with economic stagnation, and with the general direction of their state government,” Hood said.

Hood pointed out that the new survey found voters blaming excessive spending growth (53 percent) rather than economic conditions (27 percent) or excessive tax cuts (9 percent) for North Carolina’s recent deficits. By a 63 percent to 15 percent margin, likely voters favored a proposal to limit state spending growth to the combined rate of inflation and population growth. The public’s fiscally conservative sentiments also seemed to extend to the local level, where a plurality (48 percent) said city and county officials should respond to the governor’s withholding of local tax funds by cutting spending, vs. 29 percent who favored a lawsuit to recover the lost funds and 8 percent who favored raising taxes to make up the difference.

Other key issues addressed in the Agenda 2002 poll included:

• The legislative process. Since 1998, the percentage of voters who favored reforming North Carolina’s part-time legislature — rather than keeping it the way it is or replacing it with a full-time legislature — has increased noticeably. In the 2002 survey, 42 percent of respondents, up from 35 percent in 1998, favored a part-time legislature with a limit on the number of days in each legislative session. Only 27 percent, down from 44 percent in 1998, said they favored a full-time legislature. Support for term limits on legislators was little changed but high — 72 percent in the Agenda 2002 poll vs. 71 percent in 1998.

• School choice. An increasing number of North Carolina voters favor the idea of providing scholarships or tax credits to parents choosing private or home schools for their children. About 52 percent said they agreed with the idea in general, up from 44 percent in the Agenda 2000 poll, with stronger support for offering scholarships or tax credits to students in low-performing public schools — 57 percent in the 2002 poll vs. 51 percent in 2000. An overwhelming majority (79 percent) of voters said that parents should receive tax deductions for the money they spend or save for their children’s education.

• Transportation. Asked whether tax revenues from the sale of motor fuels and automobiles should be devoted only to highways or spent on other programs, 52 percent of Agenda 2002 respondents said that highway fund revenues should be spent only on highways, up from 48 percent in the Agenda 1998 survey.

• Smart Start. The Agenda 2002 survey found a majority of North Carolinians in favor of market-based alternatives to state preschool programs such as Smart Start. Asked whether government grants to providers or tax credits to families were the best way to provide good early-childhood development and day-care opportunities to children, 54 percent favored tax credits — up from 46 percent in the Agenda 1998 poll.

• Health care. Support for private options in health insurance remained strong in the Agenda 2002 survey. About 77 percent of respondents favored tax deductions or credits (like those repealed by the General Assembly last year) for families that purchase their own private health insurance.

“Overall, the findings of the Agenda 2002 poll show that conditions are ripe for a voter reaction against current state leaders and the current direction of state policy — but only if voters know whom to blame and see opposing candidates as offering real alternatives,” Hood said.

For more information about the Agenda 2002 poll, call the Foundation at 919-828-3876. Additional results, including those having to do with upcoming elections and the opinions of voter subgroups, will be released on Friday.