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Pew Survey Gauges Public Opinion on NY Fiscal Policies

Wednesday, October 06, 2010

New Yorkers are alarmed about the state's finances, and they'd rather cut spending than raise taxes to make up future budget shortfalls. Those findings are from a phone survey of more than one thousand New York residents by the Pew Center on the States. The survey was part of a broader look at public opinion in five states that are making tough money choices in a time of scarcity.

WNYC's Soterios Johnson talks to Susan Urahn, an author of the study, about the findings.

New York State had a budget deficit of almost $10 billion last year, and for years, spending has been way ahead of the rate of inflation. What did your survey reveal about New Yorker's attitudes about state finances?

Well, as we looked across five really diverse states, New York actually was very similar to the other states in terms of the public opinion on how to tackle some of these really tough budget issues that these five states are facing. And the first thing that New Yorkers wanted to do, as well as residents in other states, was to tackle the tough budget situation by making cuts. But, per the challenges, the other thing that they really wanted to do was, they were very worried about having an impact on services, and they wanted to protect Medicaid and K-12 education, and it's very tough to do all three of those things at the same time.

You surveyed citizens in other states, including California, Arizona, Florida, and Illinois -- those were the others. You mentioned some of the things that people in all of those states had in common. What were some of the differences?

There were some small differences in how much the state residents trusted in their government. What we found was that New York, Illinois and California had the highest percentages of the public that really was very frustrated and distrustful of state government and concerned that it wasn't really watching out for their interests and heading down the right path. We found slightly lower percentages of that in Arizona and in Florida.

Now when you were doing this survey, what were you trying to learn from the people who lived in these five states?

The question that we had walking in the door was really, we were looking at five states that had absolutely enormous budget gaps, and that had been struggling for several years, and our question was, how does the public think that the policy-makers should really be tackling these issues? Are they content with the direction that they're going? What do they think the core functions of government aught to be?

I was surprised to see in your survey that a higher percentage of New Yorkers have a positive view of their state's economic outlook than people in the other states that you surveyed. Do you have any idea why that might be?

I'm really not sure why that is in the survey. It was interesting, actually, across the board, the residents are relatively -- they know there's going to be tough times ahead, but they're optimistic that there is light at the end of the tunnel, New Yorkers more so. Not at all clear why.     

New York's budget deficit is expected to grow, not shrink, in the years to come, even as the economy shows some signs of improvement. What message should New York's next governor and incoming class of legislators take from your survey?

One of the most important things that we think people ought to take from this survey is that the public debate around these issues, that are going to be required to close these budget gaps, really hasn't crystallized for the public, the trade-offs that are going to have to be made. When you are closing a budget gap the size of the one that's in New York, or any of these other states, there are clearly going to have to be trade-offs. States only have so many tools at their disposal. They either have to cut spending, increase taxes, or do some borrowing. And the question is going to be, what does the package look like, that you're going to put together to deal with that budget gap and do it in a way that doesn't eviscerate the future economic growth of the state. And the public's really got to be part of that discussion, and they're just not there yet.

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