An overwhelming majority of District voters think the city’s highest priority should be maintaining public services, not holding the line on taxes, according to a poll released Sunday.
The poll also found that 41 percent believe the city is on the wrong track and that 35 percent believe the city is on the right track.
The findings of the poll show starkly different sentiments about the city’s direction under Mayor Vincent C. Gray (D) compared with his predecessor, Adrian M. Fenty. In January 2010, a Washington Post poll found that despite Fenty’s dismal approval ratings, 52 percent of residents thought the city was going in right direction and 29 percent thought it was going in the wrong direction.
The new poll was conducted by Hart Research Associates and commissioned by the D.C. Fiscal Policy Institute, a liberal think tank. It was released days before D.C. Council committees consider amendments to Gray’s $9.6 billion fiscal 2012 budget proposal, which includes a tax increase on residents earning more than $200,000 and slashing more than $100 million in social services to help close a $322 million budget gap. The full council will take a first vote on the budget May 24 and a final vote June 7.
About 70 percent of those polled said maintaining public services should be the city government’s highest priority, while 23 percent thought holding down taxes should be. The poll was conducted April 20 to 22 among 504 registered voters, 54 percent of them black and 38 percent of them white. The margin of error was 4.4 percent.
The poll comes amid probes by the council, the U.S. Attorney’s Office and a congressional committee into allegations by former mayoral candidate Sulaimon Brown that he was promised a job in Gray’s administration and was given payments to attack Fenty on the campaign trail last year. Brown landed a $110,000-a-year special-assistant job but was later fired. Gray and others named by Brown have denied the allegations, and The Washington Post has not been able to independently confirm any payments.
The poll did not ask why voters felt the city is on the wrong track, but it found that their trust in the city government to “use tax money well and deliver quality public services” is poor. About 54 percent of voters said they “trust just a little” or “do not trust at all” in the city government to handle the tax money.
Under Gray’s budget, residents with incomes higher than $200,000 would pay 8.9 percent in local income tax instead of 8.4 percent. The tax on parking garages would rise to 18 percent from 12 percent, and the Circulator bus fare would go to $2 from $1. Meanwhile, Gray’s proposal reduces funding for affordable housing, public safety, mental-health services, education and assistance for disabled residents awaiting Social Security.
Support for a tax hike on wealthier people was at 85 percent in the poll, crossing wards, race and class. Ed Lazere, the institute’s executive director, said the results were surprising in confirming that “residents would rather see modest tax increases on wealthy residents.”
“It’s much more important to keep public services,” Lazere said.
Lazere met Friday with council member Phil Mendelson (D-At Large), as well as representatives of other council members and the mayor’s administration, to share the findings and try to persuade them to restore cuts and raise certain taxes. Six council members are against Gray’s proposed income tax increase.
Council member Jack Evans (D-Ward 2), chairman of the Committee on Finance and Revenue, said the poll should have focused on residents who would bear the brunt of the proposed tax increase. “The people who are supporting the increase are not paying the [potential] taxes,” Evans said.
Evans, who is trying to rally the council against the hike, questioned whether poll respondents would be supportive if surveyed about recent government spending on vehicles and hiring that has been criticized as wasteful. “People are mad about government,” he said.
Gray recently traveled to every ward of the city, hosting town halls to speak to the public about his first budget as mayor. Gray repeatedly said his proposal would not please everyone but that he believed the plan struck the right balance between cuts and tax increases.
But the poll shows 62 percent of voters have heard “not very much” or “nothing at all” about his proposal. When asked, “based on what you’ve heard,” whether they favored or opposed the plan, feelings were mixed. About 25 percent favored and 24 percent opposed, with 51 percent saying they were not sure.
When told details about the proposal, 46 percent favored, 47 percent opposed and 7 percent were not sure.
Reaction was more lopsided when broken down by race and geography. About 56 percent of whites favored Gray’s budget proposal, while 54 percent of blacks opposed it. A majority of voters in wards 1, 2, 3 and 6 favor the mayor’s plan, while a majority in wards 7 and 8 oppose the plan. (Gray is a former Ward 7 council member.) Reaction in wards 4 and 5 was mixed.
According to the poll, 78 percent of voters found Gray’s plan for corporations totally acceptable and 63 percent totally accepted the income tax hike on wealthier residents. But only 40 percent found the parking-garage tax increase totally acceptable and just 34 percent totally accepted a rise in the Circulator bus fare. When it came to cutting services, 64 percent of voters found Gray’s planned reduction to education totally unacceptable, with a strong majority of voters also finding unacceptable the proposed cuts to Social Security assistance and mental-health services.
Marte Stevenson, an international travel specialist, supports the income tax hike.
“I think if you make more than $200,000 a year, you should pay more taxes,” she said.
Stevenson, who lives in Ward 2, said she is torn about whether the city is going in the right direction or is on the wrong track, because she opposes interference by Congress. She said the city should be able “to make its own mistakes.”
The city’s status — federally banned from charging a commuter tax and filled with tax-exempt federal property — also hamstrings its budget, she said.
“We have a limited tax base, and we have expense,” she said. “I don’t think they will ever match.”