Tuesday, March 1, 2011

New Jerseyans Split Over Gov. Christie’s Proposed Budget

After a long break for the holidays and various academic tasks, we have a new Rutgers-Eagleton Poll out. We decided to wait until AFTER the Governor's budget speech last Tuesday so we could gauge reactions to it much as we did last year.

Our first release on this poll follows. Basic finding: People who like Christie like his budget (and vice versa). Those who don't, don't. No great surprise there, I suppose. But it is rather interesting how split New Jersey is over the budget. And while New Jerseyans do support increasing public workers' share of benefit costs and revamping pension, support is not overwhelming - just over half give their support and around 45% oppose the Governor's proposed changes. Oh, and NJ voters still want to increase taxes on those at the top end of the income scale, just as they did last year.

Look through the release for an interesting little experiment on how voters respond to different proposals to have state workers pay more of their health benefits. When the Governor is said to propose it, support is lower than when Senate President Steve Sweeney is the proposer. But a bi-partisan proposal gets the most support.

The text of the release follows. The full release with tables can be read here.


NEW BRUNSWICK, N.J - New Jersey voters are split in their evaluation of Gov. Chris Christie's proposed budget for fiscal year 2012, according to a Rutgers-Eagleton Poll released today. While 45 percent are pleased with the budget, 48 percent are displeased, and 7 percent are not sure. Negative evaluations of Christie's budget appear motivated both by feelings that its proposals are unfair and by a dislike of the governor's leadership style. Positive evaluations originate in the belief Christie is trying to drastically reduce spending and in favorable personal impressions.

"While the national media give the governor plaudits for making tough budget choices, Garden Staters are not completely pleased, showing the same polarized opinions that we've seen all along," said David Redlawsk, director of the Rutgers-Eagleton Poll and professor of political science at Rutgers University.

The poll of 912 New Jersey adults was conducted among both landline and cell phone households Feb. 24-26, with a margin of error of +/- 3.3 percentage points. This sample, weighted to match the demographics of adult New Jerseyans, includes 811 registered voters, with a margin of error of +/- 3.4 percentage points for this subsample, reported on here.

Most voters paying attention; reactions mixed

Nearly 70 percent of registered voters have heard or read something about the budget: 27 percent say they heard "a lot," 42 percent "some," 20 percent "a little" and 10 percent say they heard nothing at all.

"As they did last year, New Jerseyans continue to pay lots of attention to the governor's budget, whether they like it or not," said Redlawsk. "Voters recognize he shapes the debate."

Impressions of the budget are mixed from those who have heard at least a little about it. Only 11 percent say they are "very pleased" while another 34 percent are "somewhat pleased." Displeasure is significantly stronger, with 22 percent of voters "very displeased" and 26 percent "somewhat displeased."

"Reactions to this year's budget are very similar to last year's," noted Redlawsk, adding 13 percent were very pleased with Christie's first budget and 29 percent were very displeased. The extent of the polarization is stark: 87 percent of those pleased with the budget hold a favorable impression of Christie while only 8 percent have an unfavorable impression. Conversely, 8 percent of those displeased with the budget feel favorable toward the governor, while 81 percent hold an unfavorable opinion.

Reactions to the budget

Voters pleased with the budget overwhelmingly point to Christie's budget-cutting decisions (47 percent) and leadership and decision-making style (24 percent) for their favorable views. Ten percent cite his approach to taxes and 9 percent point specifically to the proposal to make state employees contribute more to their benefits packages. Fewer than 5 percent say cuts in schools/education funding is the primary reason for their approval. Three percent say the proposal pleases them because of policies targeting teachers.

Fairness is the key word for those displeased with the budget, with 29 percent saying the proposal is not fair. These voters argue the budget targets the middle class, working people, the poor, or the elderly. Even though Christie proposes increasing school funding over last year, 25 percent are displeased because of cuts to education, while 18 percent cite general cuts in spending.

Thirteen percent are critical of the governor's leadership style, but only 5 percent specifically note their displeasure with requiring state employees to pay a larger share of their benefits. Finally, 4 percent criticize the budget due to the lack of tax cuts, and another 4 percent say they disapprove because it seems to target teachers.

Voters want Christie to compromise; Legislature to protect some programs

Sixty-five percent of those who have heard about the budget want the Legislature to protect some programs from large cuts, while only 28 percent say they support the governor's budget cutting as is. In addition, only 21 percent believe the governor should stick to his beliefs during the budget debate, but 77 percent say he should be willing to compromise.

Not surprisingly, those pleased with the budget are more likely to support budget cuts and are less likely to want compromise. About 59 percent of these voters support the governor's budget cuts, while 33 percent want the Legislature to protect some programs. Even so, 59 percent of those pleased with the budget also call for compromise, while 38 percent say Christie should stick to his beliefs.

At the same time, 93 percent of those displeased with the budget are looking for compromise, while 94 percent want the Legislature to protect some programs from large cuts, compared to 6 percent who support the large cuts in the governor's budget.

"What's most interesting is how strong the desire for compromise is," said Redlawsk. "We would expect those opposing the budget to want Christie to compromise, but so do those who support his budget cutting efforts. Voters clearly want both sides to come together in making budget decisions."

More support for Sweeney health benefits proposal versus Christie proposal

As the debate over requiring public workers in New Jersey to pay a larger share of their health benefit costs grows, Christie and Democratic State Senate President Stephen Sweeney have unveiled dueling proposals; Christie calls for all public workers to pay 30 percent of health insurance costs and Sweeney proposes a phased-in sliding scale from 12 percent to 30 percent.

About one-third of respondents were asked specifically about Christie's proposal, one-third about Sweeney's, and one-third were told both had proposed similar changes. All were told these changes would triple costs for most public workers.

Among voters learning about Christie's proposal, 42 percent support the idea, while 54 percent oppose it. Sweeney's proposal fares better, with 50 percent in support and 45 percent opposed. Finally, when voters are told about bipartisan support for requiring public workers to pay more, support is highest, with 53 percent in favor and 44 percent opposed.

"New Jersey voters are ready to see public workers pay more for their health care, but the strength of their support depends on who is proposing the plan, and the small differences between them," said Redlawsk. "Christie's plan gets less support, probably because of a combination of partisan effects and his polarizing nature. Sweeney, on the other hand, is less visible and does not get as many hackles up. His proposed sliding scale may also seem a little fairer."

Across all three versions of the question, voters are evenly split, with 48 percent in support of increasing health insurance payments for public workers and 48 percent opposed. Voters' own health care situation influences their position on this issue. Those who pay the full cost of their health care strongly favor asking public employees to contribute more, with 63 percent support. But among those who pay only a portion of their own costs, 53 percent support increasing costs for public workers, while only 27 percent of those whose employer pays the full cost agree. About a third (35 percent) with no health care insurance say the same. Among those on Medicare or Medicaid, 45 percent support increasing worker contributions.

Shared sacrifice: support for public worker benefits cut and millionaire's tax

Besides cuts in health benefits, voters support the outlines of the governor's proposed overhaul of the state pension plan, raising costs and cutting benefits. More than half support his pension overhaul plan, with 28 percent offering strong support and 26 percent saying they somewhat support the overhaul. Of the 40 percent opposed, 17 percent somewhat oppose the plan, and 23 percent strongly oppose it.

At the same time, a strong majority also wants the so-called "millionaire's tax" back on the table. Of the nearly three-quarters who express support for the tax, 52 percent strongly support a legislative attempt to increase taxes on the rich to help close budget gaps. An additional 20 percent say they would somewhat support this tax. Only 27 percent oppose it, 12 percent "somewhat" and 15 percent "strongly."

Voters have become more supportive of taxing high income earners since February 2010, when 62 percent of registered voters opposed eliminating the surtax for those making more than $400,000 annually. Moreover, support for increased taxation of rich Garden Staters remains broad today, with 82 percent of Democrats, 72 percent of independents, and even 53 percent of Republicans supporting an increased tax rate for incomes above $1 million.

"While voters are more than willing to have public employees see significant cuts in pension and health benefits, they also strongly believe the sacrifice should be shared," said Redlawsk. "While the governor uses the mantra of shared sacrifice, voters specifically believe that costs should also be paid by those at the top of the income scale."

Most important priority

Asked to pick the most important proposals in Christie's budget speech, reforming the pension system is first (28 percent), followed by increasing property tax rebates (21 percent), eliminating teacher tenure (18 percent), requiring public employees to pay more of their benefits cost (14 percent) and cutting business taxes (12 percent).

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