Americans are pretty clear: They want their state governments to balance their own budgets without help from the federal government. Just don't expect them to be clear about how.
The results of the latest Society for Human Resource Management/National Journal Congressional Connection Poll, conducted with the Pew Research Center, show a solid majority favor state governments raising state taxes or cutting state services over using federal funds to help them meet their budgets. But when presented with options on how to do so, the public doesn't like any of the above.
Fifty-eight percent of those surveyed said the better way to address the problem of states balancing their budgets is to raise taxes or cut services, while 26 percent said the feds should step in, even if it meant adding to the deficit. Sixteen percent couldn't answer the question, perhaps acknowledging the tough trade-off.
The implications of such opinions put members of Congress and other lawmakers in a pickle. If they accede to popular sentiment and don't provide federal funds to desperate states, they score one for the deficit-conscious. But what that would mean for the states is unpopular as well. When people were asked what their state governments should do to balance the budget, they offered no viable option.
"It's the American way, part of the reason we're in the situation we're in," said Scott Ellis, vice president for Taxpayers for Common Sense. "At the 10,000-foot level, everyone can agree that we need to make cuts. But when you look at the details, and the devil is always in the details, people can't come up with things to cut, and that translates very easily to lawmakers not taking action."
Take cutting funds for K-12 education. A whopping 73 percent were opposed to states cutting money for schools. How about cuts to money going to police, fire departments or other public safety officials? Nope. Seventy-one percent oppose that.
How about cutting healthcare services? Sorry, 65 percent oppose that. This one affects Capitol Hill, as state and national groups push the Senate to find a way to extend $24 billion in federal Medicaid assistance to states.
Thirty states have budgeted for the six-month increase, and without a guarantee in funding from Congress soon, state lawmakers might have to rewrite their budgets as many state fiscal years begin Thursday.
Let's move on to raising taxes. Another roadblock, with 58 percent opposed. What's left? In this survey, it was cutting funding for maintaining roads and public transportation. Half of those who responded didn't think that was a good idea, either, but 43 percent said they would favor that, the high-water mark in the poll for how to address the problem.
"In some ways, lawmakers have been doing a little of all of those already," said Todd Haggerty, policy associate at the National Conference of State Legislatures. "Most of the easy options are long gone. It's all tough choices now," he added.
Scott Pattison, executive director of the National Association of State Budget Officers, said "because this downturn in revenue has been so significant, you've done a lot already. All the low-hanging fruit is gone." He likened the situation in the states to what families face in making difficult budget choices. "If you've been unemployed for five months, then you've already sat down and made some painful choices. If you've been unemployed for two-and-a-half years, though, you're starting to tap into your kids' college funds and any other rainy day things. That's really where the states are. The actions they've taken are progressively harder. It's a zero-sum game."
The poll of 1,001 adults who were reached by landline or cell phone was conducted Thursday through Sunday. The margin of error is 4 points for the entire sample.