Most Arizona voters would be willing to raise taxes to avoid budget cuts to education and health care for the poor, a statewide poll has found.
Results of the poll released Friday by KAET-TV (Channel 8) should give a boost to a small group of state lawmakers who are starting to push for a special election on a temporary tax increase to help the state deal with a predicted $1 billion budget shortfall in fiscal 2003-04.
The telephone survey of 559 registered voters, conducted this week by veteran pollster Bruce Merrill, found overwhelming support for slightly higher taxes to fund education needs, including teacher salaries and school construction. A majority of those questioned also said they would vote for new taxes to support early childhood education and health care for poor working families — areas that have been targeted for reduction or elimination by a Republican budget proposal. Nearly three-fourths of respondents — 72 percent — said they would back a slight state tax increase to make sure poor children have adequate food, health care and education.
Merrill said he's surprised a Republican-controlled Legislature and Democratic Gov. Janet Napolitano won't consider any new taxes to ease the fiscal crisis.
"In some cases where someone demonstrates a need, such as education, medical care for the poor and other areas, I have long found evidence that people will support that kind of increase," Merrill said.
The arts was the only area mentioned in the poll that garnered little support for new taxes.
The Legislature must address the largest gap between revenue and expenditures in the state's history. Most lawmakers expect weeks or months of difficult negotiations because of enormous differences between the Republican legislative proposal and what Napolitano wants to do. Republicans have proposed significant budget reductions, while Napolitano has suggested heavy borrowing and more optimistic revenue projections.
Earlier this week, two state senators who represent East Valley voters endorsed a proposal from Sen. Jack Brown, D-St. Johns, for a half-cent increase in the state sales tax that would expire after three years, raising a total of $1.125 billion. The proposal is part of a package of new revenue sources being explored by Sen. Slade Mead, R-Ahwatukee Foothills, and Democrat Sen. Pete Rios, D-Dudleyville, whose district includes Apache Junction.
The two senators were assigned to a special committee by the Senate appropriations chairman to illustrate how difficult it would be to solve the budget crisis by raising taxes. Instead, Rios said many lawmakers are beginning to realize the public won't accept further agency cuts.
"A lot of people are realizing there is no fat left in these budgets anymore. We are cutting into muscle. We are cutting into bone," Rios said. "Whether the Legislature wants to do it, or wants to refer it to the ballot and the vote of the people in the next three or four months, I think a lot of people want to look at different options."
But conservative Republicans who are setting the Legislature's agenda argue that new taxes would further burden families still struggling in a relatively weak economy. Higher taxes could drive some people into bankruptcy or onto welfare, Rep. Karen Johnson, R-Mesa, said during a committee hearing Friday.
"If we don't make these cuts, we will have to raise taxes," Johnson said. "And I wasn't elected by my district to raise taxes."