About 10 months ago, in the middle of the difficult 2009 legislative session, Gov. M. Jodi Rell’s campaign “commissioned” a statewide public opinion survey to measure political support for the governor, identify public attitudes about key budget issues, and to determine how best to position her for re-election in 2010.
It is common for elected officials to use campaign funds to pay for political and issue positioning polls, but it looks as if Rell’s campaign may have decided to play fast and loose with its campaign funds.
A statewide telephone survey generally costs between $15,000 and $25,000, depending on the number of questions asked and the number of respondents. In this case, the Rell Gubernatorial Exploratory Committee reportedly paid just $6,000 for a poll that would have cost three to four times that amount. The remainder of the cost was paid for with state funds and underwritten with the “donated” help of state employees and UConn students who were compensated with public dollars.
Rell and her campaign could be facing penalties since investigators are looking into whether they violated Connecticut’s campaign finance laws by reportedly accepting an in-kind contribution, paying below market value for a product, and using state funds for campaign purposes.
(This columnist is the one who filed the complaint with the state Elections Enforcement Commission.)
At this point, it appears that Connecticut taxpayers helped pay for a poll that the governor refused to turn over to legislators and the media, claiming that it was paid exclusively with campaign funds and therefore was exempt from disclosure.
Thanks to the outstanding work of New London Day reporter Ted Mann, the truth behind these issues is being investigated.
But since taxpayers paid for the poll, it is part of the public record. As such, it seems only fair that we be given the opportunity to review its findings and see what guidance we can glean from the public’s attitudes about these important issues.
Since polls are only a snapshot in time and this poll is 10 months old, we need to recognize that these findings were accurate as of May 2009 and may not reflect public attitudes today.
That said, as of last spring 75 percent of Connecticut voters were paying close or very close attention to the state’s growing budget crisis. At the time, voters were twice as likely to support the governor’s proposal to balance the budget over the plan put forward by legislative Democrats. Ironically, since neither plan actually balanced the budget, this statistic is a good example of how perception can trump reality.
When asked about their preference on how the budget should be balanced, 44 percent of voters believed the budget should be balanced exclusively through spending cuts, while 56 percent preferred a combination of cuts and tax increases. The majority of those who supported a combination of cuts and revenue increases leaned toward more cuts than tax increases.
Support for various revenue increases varied considerably. Despite Rell’s vehement opposition to raising the income tax on the wealthy, 69 percent of respondents favored higher taxes on those making more than $1 million a year. A similar number of respondents (68 percent) remained supportive of higher income taxes on those with incomes of at least $500,000 and more than 6 in 10, or 62 percent, favored increasing the income tax rate for couples making more than $250,000 and singles making more than $125,000.
At the same time, 41 percent of voters favored expanding the sales tax to cover all things purchased in Connecticut, and about a third favored raising licensing fees for people who are required to have state licenses to work. Some 27 percent favored raising the sales tax to 7 percent.
There was very broad support (70 percent) for increasing the cigarette tax, while about a third favored raising the state tax on corporations.
As an alternative to raising taxes, only 10 percent of voters favored borrowing money to cover the state deficit.
While the legislature did finally manage to adopt an increase in the income tax for wealthy taxpayers, it is an interesting and sad commentary that the state budget that eventually became law when Rell refused to sign or veto it included huge increases in licensing fees and extensively relied on increasing the state’s debt burden by borrowing money to cover the funding gap.
It is truly ironic that even after conducting the survey, Rell opposed the one option that had broad support while supporting several options that had the least amount of public support.
The poll also included a variety of questions to determine how Rell could best position herself for re-election. Some find this particular type of opinion polling distasteful because it throws aside doing the right thing and simply seeks to identify the best political options.
Thanks to the expertise the governor retained to develop the poll, the results provided her a fairly clear framework. Voters wanted her to push for compromise while standing firm in her support for budget cuts and opposition to raising taxes. Observers will recall that week after week, the governor’s rhetoric did just that – and now we know why.
However, what remains a mystery is Rell’s thinking when it came to her end game on the budget. The one thing voters were absolutely clear about is that they did not want her to agree to the Democrats’ plan simply as a way to end the budget gridlock. Of course by allowing the Democratic budget bill to become law without her signature, that is exactly what she did.
Faced with the choice of vetoing the Democrats’ plan or signing it into law, Rell did the unthinkable and simply walked away.
After reviewing the poll we are left with some fundamental questions. By all accounts Rell commissioned this survey so that she would know what the public wanted, thus providing her with a roadmap on how to walk through the minefield of the 2009 budget crisis.
In this case the public was relatively clear. They supported increasing taxes on the wealthy and wanted the governor to show leadership in crisis. Despite having that information in hand, she railed against the revenue options people wanted and simply abdicated the role of chief executive officer. Instead of leading, she became a bystander and failed to respond to the voters’ most significant demand.
Perhaps the lesson here is simple. When it comes to political polling, be careful about asking questions when you don’t really want to know the answers.
Jonathan Pelto served as a member of the House of Representatives from 1984-1993. He was Deputy Majority Leader and member of the Appropriations Committees during the income tax debate of 1991. He presently works as a strategic communications consultant.