Copyright © 2016 Albuquerque Journal
SANTA FE – A majority of likely New Mexico voters prefer solving a massive state budget crunch with a mix of targeted tax increases on such items as alcohol and spending cuts, while less than a third of voters favor relying solely on steep budget cuts to state programs and services, a new Journal Poll found.
Fifty-nine percent of statewide voters surveyed in the recent poll said they favor the combination approach to fixing the state’s estimated $589 million budget shortfall, while 31 percent said they would prefer deeper cuts with no tax increases. The remaining voters surveyed were unsure or would not say.
The Journal Poll results suggest that voters might be willing to accept at least some tax increases as part of budget-balancing plan, an approach that has been rejected by Gov. Susana Martinez.
“I think people recognize the problem and are willing to spread the pain with cuts to services balanced with possible tax increases on items such as alcohol, gas and tobacco,” said Journal pollster Brian Sanderoff, president of Research & Polling Inc.
New Mexico lawmakers are facing a projected $458 million shortfall for the budget year that started in July, as well as a $131 million deficit for the fiscal year that ended in June.
The budget crunch is largely due to plummeting oil and natural gas prices that have caused the state’s tax collections to fall far short of what had been expected – by more than $1 billion over the past two years.
As a result, the state is facing the possibility of having its credit rating downgraded, and the Legislature is trying to cobble together a solvency fix in a special session called by Martinez that began Friday.
The governor, a Republican, has maintained a “no tax increase” stance since first taking office in 2011 and has so far stuck to the position in the current budget crunch.
A Martinez spokesman recently said in response to a proposal to increase New Mexico’s alcohol excise tax rate that the governor “believes we can solve our budget challenges by making tough decisions and tightening state government’s belt.”
“Taking the easy way out by raising taxes is nothing more than the Washington way, and that’s a route she isn’t going to take,” Martinez spokesman Michael Lonergan said.
Some Democratic lawmakers have called in recent months for tax increases to be part of a budget-balancing plan, though they’ve also acknowledged the political difficultly in enacting them.
“Everybody is afraid of a new tax,” said Rep. Jim Trujillo, D-Santa Fe, during debate this weekend at the state Capitol.
Voters surveyed in the Journal Poll were asked which option they preferred – balancing the budget with a combination of state governments cuts and tax increases on items such as alcohol, tobacco and gasoline, or balancing the budget with deeper spending cuts and no tax increases.
Female voters were more likely than male voters to favor the combination approach – 63 percent of women surveyed said they supported that solvency strategy compared to 53 percent of men – while registered Democrats were more likely to prefer it than Republicans.
“Republicans generally are less supportive of tax increases, and you definitely see that here,” Sanderoff said.
However, among Republican voters surveyed, support was actually slightly higher for the combination approach than just the spending cut approach – 48 percent to 45 percent.
Independent voters, or those who declined to state a party affiliation, were also more likely to support the combination approach than deeper spending cuts.
Lawmakers are currently debating a solvency package that includes bills that would slash state spending by around $175 million in the current fiscal year, take money from various state government accounts and tap a $226 million tobacco fund created in response to a 1999 legal settlement.
There are no tax increase proposals currently in the mix at the special session, though the Senate narrowly approved last week a proposal to delay a scheduled corporate income tax cut. Backers of the measure insisted it did not represent a tax hike, but the bill was opposed by the Martinez administration and was derailed Saturday in a House committee.
If tax hikes were to be part of the budget-balancing mix, Sanderoff said tax increases with a more incremental-type impact – like a gas or tobacco tax hike – might be an easier sell than an increase on taxes levied annually, such as property and income taxes.
“No one likes tax increases, but when you do them people prefer that they increase a little as you go,” he said.
The Journal Poll is based on a scientific, statewide sample of 501 voters who said they planned to vote this year and either cast ballots in the 2012 or 2014 general elections or just registered to vote.
The poll was conducted Sept. 27 through Sept. 29. The full voter sample has a margin of error of plus or minus 4.4 percentage points. The margin of error grows for subsamples.
All interviews were conducted by live, professional interviewers, with multiple callbacks to households that did not initially answer the phone.
Both cellphone numbers (52 percent) and landlines (48 percent) of proven general election voters were used.