Taxes fuel discontent

The Baltimore Sun

Voters are profoundly dissatisfied with the $1.3 billion in tax increases passed during November's special legislative session, and a majority consider the package unfair, according to a new Sun Poll.

As a result, public approval of Gov. Martin O'Malley, a Democrat, has dropped precipitously, particularly among the blue-collar voters he says he sought to protect in crafting a solution to the state's projected budget shortfalls.

Just over a year after O'Malley won 53 percent of the vote, only 35 percent of voters approve of the way he's handled his job.

In one of the nation's most staunchly Democratic states, O'Malley's approval rating is just 8 percentage points above President Bush's rating in the same poll. O'Malley's job approval numbers are also close to 10-year lows in how Marylanders have felt about the work of their governors.

"He's given away all of his political capital on this special session," said Steven L. Raabe, president of OpinionWorks, the polling firm that conducted the survey for The Sun. "He probably needed to do it from a policy standpoint, but one could question the manner in which it was done because it has come at a great cost to his ability to lead the state."

The statewide poll, which was conducted Jan. 6-9, surveyed 904 likely voters and has a margin of error of plus or minus 3.5 percentage points.

In a state where education is perennially named by residents as the most important issue, high taxes have skyrocketed to the top of voter concerns, with 28 percent identifying it as the most pressing problem.

In Sun surveys dating back 10 years, the issue of taxes has never been the top concern of more than 11 percent of voters. When asked for what they consider the second most pressing issue, another 12 percent of respondents named taxes.

The discontent comes at a time of unusual anxiety over the state's economy, with 52 percent saying they believe it is getting worse, a 33-percentage point jump since 2005 and nearly twice as high as any year since 1998.

"I'm a blue-collar worker, man. I can't afford all those taxes," said Franklin Gregg, 57, a lifelong Baltimore resident who works at an auto parts retailer and said he used to approve of O'Malley's work as mayor. Now, he said, he is thinking about leaving the state.

"With my mortgage, taxes, water bill and gas and electric, hey, I'm getting pounded here," said Gregg, who was among several poll respondents who agreed to follow-up interviews with reporters.

Among likely voters who followed the special session at least somewhat, 54 percent said they disapproved of the fiscal package, which included increases to the sales, cigarette, corporate income and car-titling taxes. The income tax was also changed to reduce rates for lower-income workers and to raise them for top earners.

O'Malley designed the tax increases and a set of spending cuts to solve a budget shortfall that had persisted through two previous gubernatorial administrations and eventually reached a projected $1.7 billion.

At the same time, O'Malley increased spending on transportation, health care and the environment, though the continuation of those programs will likely depend on whether voters approve a slot machine gambling referendum that legislators set up as part of the governor's fiscal package.

The poll found that opposition to the tax package is intense, with 39 percent of voters saying they disapproved strongly. Of the 32 percent who approved of the outcome, 20 percent did so "not so strongly."

The discontent with the tax increases was not universal. Some voters said they approved of O'Malley's actions and believed that they were a necessary evil. "Nobody likes taxes," said Commodore Monk, 60, of Prince George's County, who saw the budget crisis as a problem O'Malley inherited. "But if that's going to make the state more fiscally sound, and deal with some of the other pressing issues of the state like improving the school system and crime, we have to do what we have to do."

Asked to set aside their own personal feelings about the outcome and comment on the general fairness of the tax increases, 51 percent said they were unfair, compared with 33 percent who said the package was fair.

O'Malley crafted his proposal in a way that he said would hold harmless to most Maryland families and even save many of them money by shifting the tax burden to high-income workers. Much of the sense that the tax increases are unfair may be due to the increase in the sales tax from 5 percent to 6 percent because of its broad impact, Raabe said.

Marguerite Bowman, 60, a registered Democrat and retired teaching assistant who lives on Kent Island in Queen Anne's County, said she buys appliances and furniture in Delaware to save on sales tax and has even considered moving there to avoid high income taxes.

"I have thought about it several times," she said. "If I'm buying an appliance, I got news for you, I'm going to Delaware. If I'm buying furniture, I'm going to Delaware. People do it all the time out here, and we do it because we don't have to pay the sales tax."

O'Malley spent about six weeks before the special session laying out his proposal, seeking to reassure lower- and middle-income voters that they would bear little of the burden but would benefit from better roads and mass transit, increased access to health care and more affordable higher education. But the poll results and subsequent interviews with respondents suggest that voters didn't hear the message or didn't buy it.

Anne Harrison, a Montgomery County Democrat, said she felt that the session was too rushed and that O'Malley was "manipulative" to call it.

"He wasn't happy with what decisions had already been made, and he was trying to bully people into changing the decision and seemed like he wasn't going to leave them alone until they came to whatever agreement he wanted," she said.

In 10 years of Sun surveys, O'Malley's 35 percent approval rating is higher only than that of Gov. Parris N. Glendening at the end of his term, when 30 percent of voters said they approved of his job performance. Glendening's popularity suffered from a tanking economy, projected state budget deficits and his divorce and third marriage, to an aide who was 24 years his junior.

Ehrlich's job approval ratings never dipped below 50 percent in his four years, and the Republican remains one of the most popular politicians in Maryland, with 58 percent of voters viewing him in a favorable light, compared with 28 percent who do not.

However, the survey found that only a third of voters thought the state improved under Ehrlich's tenure, with the rest believing it stayed the same or got worse.

If there is any silver lining for O'Malley in the figures, it may be that putting aside his job performance, 48 percent of voters view him favorably compared with 39 percent unfavorably.

And there is still a sizable portion of the electorate, 20 percent, that is unsure whether they approve of how he's doing his job.

The governor said in a recent interview that he advocated his budget-balancing plan knowing that it could hurt him politically because he believed that finding a fiscal remedy was unavoidable.

His staff members have frequently compared the resolution of Maryland's fiscal crisis to what happened in Virginia in 2004, when Gov. Mark Warner worked with legislators there to close a $1.4 billion budget gap.

Warner, however, managed to enact a large tax increase in a relatively conservative state without taking a large hit in the polls. According to a Virginia Commonwealth University survey conducted shortly after the passage of that budget package, 55 percent of voters there approved of Warner's job performance.

According to subsequent university polls university, that number had inched up within four months. By the time Warner left office in 2006, more than 80 percent of voters approved of his work.

O'Malley - and any legislator who voted for the package - will have their work cut out for them in the next two and a half years if they want to reverse such abysmal numbers, said Raabe, the pollster.

"He certainly needs now to realize that he's got this problem and he needs to go out and continue to communicate on this issue with the public because they do not understand what happened," Raabe said. "They do not agree with what happened. They don't feel good about it."

But turning the tide won't be easy, especially among many of the "working families" O'Malley has most aggressively courted. Among those with who do not have a college degree, O'Malley's approval ratings dip into the 20s.

"He says he's out for the working people, but I really think it affects the poor people, people like my husband and myself who don't make a lot of income," said Reesa Szczepanik, 51, a housewife who lives in Northeast Baltimore.

The Democrat said she felt angry recently when she saw O'Malley on television talking about helping the "working mothers and fathers out there."

"I was like, 'Hello, I'm one of those, and believe me, you didn't help me any,'" she said. "If anything, it's going to make it more difficult. His message didn't reach me at all."

A potentially troubling sign is the reaction of voters in Baltimore County, a jurisdiction that formed a vital component of O'Malley's support when he defeated Ehrlich in 2006. Just 28 percent of voters there approve of his job performance, and 75 percent said they disapproved of the tax package passed in the session.

Elizabeth Moran, 64, a retired office manager in the Rodgers Forge neighborhood of Baltimore County and a self-identified "conservative Democrat," said she worried that the expansion of the sales tax to computer services presaged a slippery slope leading to the taxation of more services.

"My husband is an accountant, and this is eventually going to filter down to him, too," Moran said. "When you have to pass taxes on to your clients, they don't like it."

Moran said her disapproval of O'Malley is just the culmination of years of growing misgivings about him, dating back to his days as Baltimore mayor.

"When he first came on the scene, I really liked him," she said. "But after maybe a year or so in office he got cocky."

Sun reporter Gadi Dechter contributed to this article.

Coming tomorrow: Marylanders' views on the presidential candidates.

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