In case you have not heard, the State of Minnesota is heading for a seemingly inevitable state shutdown if state leaders cannot agree on a budget before July 1.Â Anecdotally, much of the discussion seems to have shifted from budget priorities to assigning blame for the pending cease of operations.Â And, I am seeing more public opinion polls thatÂ ask some variant of “Who is to blame?” or “Should we raise taxes orÂ cut spending?”Â
First, polls can beÂ subject to several sampling and statistical errors that can lead to bias, whether or not it is intended.Â Â Worse, however, isÂ that some polls are framed to get intended answers.Â Â I came acrossÂ this link via a Minnesota State Chamber of Commerce tweet (@MCC_THesse).Â Â A KSTP poll that,Â shows that 87 percent of Minnesotans do not favorÂ increased spending.Â Â The Chamber translates this message asÂ no new taxes.Â That is fair insofar as the question was phrased.Â “Going forward, should Minnesota’s government increase spending? Decrease spending? Or continue to spend about the same amount as it has been?”
Unfortunately, in a 5-10 minute telephone poll, the questioner, who probably is not a policy wonk, cannot explain what anÂ increase really means.Â DoesÂ ”increased spending” include inflation adjustmentsÂ andÂ cost-inflators like health care and energy?Â Does increase spendingÂ include federal stimulus funds that were used in the last legislative session but are now unavailable?Â I surmise that thereÂ are very few folks (13 percent according to this survey) that actually favor increased spending relative to the previous session.Â But, there is not a consensus on what an increase truly means.Â I wrote a piece at the beginning of the sesson that explained my take on When an Increase may not be an increase.Â Others may have been more eloquent on the topic.Â But, it should explain how these questions are not quite as obvious as “Should the government increase spending?”Â I would not expect persons who do not work in government toÂ be aware of these nuances.Â Therefore, I don’t expect such a poll to provide much validity.
Finally, other pollsÂ show seemingly contradictory results.Â This Star-Tribune poll from May showed that 63 percent favord a mix of tax hikes and spending cuts to balance the budget.Â How canÂ both polls be right?
The answer, of course, isÂ how you ask the question.Â I firmly believe thatÂ most citizens do not favor new program spending.Â However, the state has less money today than two years ago in terms of real revenue, inflation-adjusted revenue, and federal revenue.Â As such, the stateÂ will requireÂ ”more spending” (or more taxes) justÂ to provide the same services asÂ the previous biennium.Â
So, after digging deeper, the polls are not contradictory at all.Â But, they also do not tell us very much we do not already know and largely agree upon.Â Â Therefore, I will continue to view with muchÂ skepticism anyÂ a public opinion poll that purports to overwhelmingly support one position or the other in terms of taxesÂ and spending.