With each passing day, the proposed transportation package from the House Democrats is looking more and more like the Roads & Transit measure that failed in 2007. Both may go down in history as unique proposals that united both pro-transit and pro-road forces in opposition. Anti-tax forces haven’t been giving the package any love either– Monday’s Elway Poll made it clear that the general public isn’t interested in paying higher gas tax and car-tab fees.
While any opposition to such a highway-centric package sounds good, it’s important to not take away too much from the poll. It’s a no-brainer that no one actually likes paying more taxes. But if you associate a benefit to the cost of tax increases, people tend to have a stronger willingness to yield. Of course, that depends on what those benefits actually are and how you frame the question.
Let’s take a look at the Elway’s poll question (.pdf). The wording leads by outlining the package’s potential benefits, and asks the respondent to prioritize accordingly:
The legislature is looking at some potential transportation improvements. Of course, transportation projects are expensive and take a long time to complete. So the question is where to spend taxpayer dollars. I am going to read a list of projects that could be included in this package. As you think about the state transportation system over the next 10 years, tell me whether you think each project should be a Top priority for state government, a High priority, Low or a Not a priority for state government:
- Expand major highways around the state to reduce commuter congestion and increase freight mobility
- Provide money to the state ferry system to upgrade and maintain the system and keep fares down
- Repair and maintenance of existing roads and bridges
- Provide money to local mass transit systems
I think a lot of respondents would find this wording too vague. By now, commuters are probably deaf to promises of congestion relief and most are in no good position to tell you about the State’s maintenance backlog or our local transit funding crisis. It’s hard to pinpoint exactly what, in these four bullets, would be a tangible benefit that most voters could actually appreciate.
Moving on to the second part of the question:
As I said, transportation projects are expensive. The other part of the package will be how to pay for these improvements. No one likes to raise taxes, but as I read some funding options, tell me whether you would: Favor that proposal, be inclined to Accept it, be inclined to Oppose, or find it Unacceptable. I realize you don’t have all the details, but how are you inclined?
- Increase the hazardous substance tax mostly paid by oil refineries on the state
- A new tax on Bicycles that cost over $500
- Allowing tolls on major roadways
- An increase in the license tab tax
I’m not sure what Elway was trying to accomplish by concluding the survey with a question about cost, but I can see two things happening here. Because respondents are essentially finishing the survey on a low note, they’ll likely have already forgotten about the benefits of the package and are instead left thinking about taxes and fees. In other words, the poll’s wording makes very little association between cost and benefit, so no one’s really clear on what they would actually be paying for.
In defense of the transportation package, House Transportation Chair Judy Clibborn had this to say:
[Clibborn] noted Elway’s poll did not ask voters about specific projects that would be funded by the increase in taxes. ”If you put projects in you’d get a different answer,” she said.
While I’m at odds with Clibborn as to whether or not listing a bunch of highway projects will yield some sudden groundswell of support, she is correct that the framing of the poll’s wording can produce a sub-conscious bias. It’s why polling on the same issue can often yield conflicting results. If people are haunted by the cost of a transportation proposal, but not sold on the benefits, then they’ll almost certainly be driven to oppose it.
The 2008 Prop. 1 vote is a good example of messaging and framing that worked. The measure had a high cost, but it was paired with a sizable benefit. Voters approved ST2 because they wanted transit, and that’s exactly what the ballot measure promised (page 96 of the 2008 Voter’s Pamphlet). Thanks to focused messaging and a simple map, voters could see with their own eyes what a 0.5% sales tax increase would pay for– a regional transit vision with lots of new light rail, commuter rail, and express bus service.
Once we have a transportation package that’s actually worth advocating for, the key is to focus on what voters want, and not what they’ll be paying.