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Poll shows support for Pawlenty's budget strategy
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A majority of respondents say their taxes are too high. (Mason-Dixon Polling and Research)
A new poll shows most Minnesotans favor the direction set by Gov. Tim Pawlenty's no-new-taxes approach to budget-balancing. But the survey -- conducted for Minnesota Public Radio and the St. Paul Pioneer Press -- also shows that when confronted with specific alternatives or tax proposals, significant majorities show a willingness to increase state revenues.

St. Paul, Minn. — According to poll results, roughly 60 percent of Minnesotans feel that the state tax burden is already too high -- but when asked about specific taxes, respondents seem to rethink the matter. Seventy-seven percent support an income tax increase on the state's highest earners as outlined by Senate DFLers, while 67 percent favor a $1-per-pack increase in the cigarette tax.

Together, those taxes would raise approximately $1 billion over the next two years to help balance a projected $4.2 billion deficit. Gov. Pawlenty has sworn off any state tax increases. He says the findings don't surprise him -- nor are they contradictory.

"It says we don't want our taxes raised -- by the way, we'd consider it if you raised somebody else's taxes. That's not an inconsistent thing," Pawlenty says. "In a lot of polling, you see people want it all. But if you ask them as a matter of principle, as a matter of philosophy, do you think Minnesota is overtaxed, they agree."

But Senate DFLers say the results demonstrate new thinking about the budget deficit. When the poll's 625 likely voters were asked about the consequences of specific spending cuts, oftentimes a majority favored tax increases.

For example, 51 percent say they'd prefer higher taxes to reductions in child care spending, and 63 percent say the same thing for services for the disabled. The poll has a margin of error of 4 percentage points. DFL Majority Leader John Hottinger says those results reflect what he's been saying all along.

"Minnesotans value many of the things we do in this state highly enough, that they're willing to make some tax increases," says Hottinger. "When directly asked about the spending cuts, many Minnesotans are willing to say no, we'd rather pay taxes than have that magnitude of spending cuts."

Gabrielle Uz counts herself among those who are willing to pay more for state services. Uz, 32, of Eden Prairie, participated in MPR's on-line Budget Balancer exercise. She says she and her family moved to Minnesota recently from California, in part because of the state's reputation for its high quality of life.

"Nobody wants your taxes raised until you explain that if you don't raise your taxes, you're going to lose services. So, it makes sense that when you go down to the details, people see that you can't really cut services that they need," says Uz.

Greg Tschida, 38, is among those who say Pawlenty is on the right track with his proposed cuts. Tschida, another online budget balancer, is a telecommunications salesman from Chaska. He says he understands the difficulty of reducing state services, but he says the state needs to show the same spending discipline that businesses and families face.

"Do you really want to cut here, do you really want to cut there? But, you know, just like a Minnesota family would have to say, 'Well, maybe we go without some new clothes this year or this summer, and we don't take as big a family vacation,' I think we have to do the same thing with the state government," says Tschida.

The poll also shows strong support for a state-operated casino at the Canterbury Park racetrack in Shakopee. House Republicans have based their budget plan on Pawlenty's no-new-tax proposal -- but GOP lawmakers have softened Pawlenty's cuts by drawing on the casino's potential revenue. The poll shows 70 percent of Minnesotans favor that approach.

"This poll seems to be supportive of the direction that we're going," says Republican House Speaker Steve Sviggum. "It seems to be a good reflection of Minnesotans in support of that direction."

Sviggum also notes that, although specific questions indicate support for tax increases in specific situations, when the three plans -- governor's, Senate DFL's, and House GOP's -- are laid side-by-side, the Senate plan only receives 38 percent support. The governor and his Republican allies, together, capture 55 percent.

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