Poll shows 77% would pay to improve schools
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By Lynda Arakawa
Advertiser Capitol Bureau
An overwhelming majority of Hawai'i residents 77 percent would pay more in taxes to improve the quality of public education, according to The Honolulu Advertiser Hawai'i Poll.
Seventy-six percent would pay more taxes to make repairs to public schools.
For years, the quality of education has been rated as one of the top concerns of Hawai'i residents, but the Hawai'i Poll is the first broad survey of public attitudes toward a tax increase for the benefit of public schools, as well as for other initiatives.
While conceding the dilapidated condition of the schools, the shortage of textbooks and computers and the inadequacy of classroom instruction, Hawai'i's recent governors and the Legislature have never seriously discussed a tax increase, assuming that it would be politically perilous.
As expected, the Hawai'i Poll found that improving the quality of education ranked highest in importance for Hawai'i residents, followed closely by making needed repairs to public schools.
The poll gave respondents a list of issues to consider and asked them to rank how important they considered them to be.
In addition to the condition of the schools, Hawai'i residents are generally concerned about helping Hawai'i companies stay in business, improving the environment, attracting new businesses to the state, solving traffic problems and providing social services, the poll found. Addressing Native Hawaiian concerns ranked the lowest.
But beyond simply being concerned, the Hawai'i Poll found that the majority of those surveyed said they were willing to pay more taxes to address their concerns in nearly all of the areas cited. The poll found people to be the most resistant to paying more taxes to resolve Native Hawaiian issues and to attract new businesses to the state.
The random statewide telephone survey of 603 Hawai'i residents was conducted Jan. 25 to 30 by Ward Research Inc. of Honolulu. The margin of error is 4 percentage points, which means a survey of all Hawai'i residents would not be likely to produce a result more than 4 percentage points above or below the poll results.
The poll asked respondents if they were willing to pay "no more" in taxes, "a little more" or "significantly more" if the government had developed a good solution to the concerns discussed. When contacted for follow-up interviews later and asked specifically how much they were willing to pay, respondents gave a range of answers.
Chad Williams, a 26-year-old drywall hanger from Kurtistown on the Big Island, said he'd be willing to pay "significantly more" in taxes to improve the quality of public education, which to him means about $300 to $400 more a year.
Williams, who does not have any children, also estimates paying "a little more" in taxes for issues such as helping local companies stay in business means paying up to $100 more a year.
"I've got a lot of friends that are in businesses and I see how they struggle," he said. "I think it's important to keep the small businesses locally owned and operated."
For 48-year-old Makakilo resident Michael Mayo, paying "significantly more" is about $200 more a year. Mayo, a property manager who is retired from the Army, said he would pay that much more to solve traffic problems so his wife wouldn't have to wake up before 5 a.m. to drive to work in Honolulu.
A $50 to $75 increase a year qualifies as paying "a little more" for Gertrude Gugliemina, a 37-year-old Salt Lake resident who is a recreational pool supervisor with the U.S. Coast Guard. Gugliemina said she would be willing to pay more taxes for public schools, which her two children attend, as well as to improve traffic conditions.
Kailua resident Howard Rapoza, a 64-year-old hardware store worker and retired plumber, said his children graduated from private schools, but that he'd be willing to pay up to $100 more a year in taxes to improve public education.
"Why can't public schools keep up with the private schools, education-wise?" Rapoza said. "I think everybody should deserve equal. If paying more taxes could do that for the children that's coming up in this world, I think it would be very sufficient."
The poll found that while Democrats generally tended to be more willing than Republicans to pay more taxes, a strong majority of Republicans were still willing to pay more taxes on issues such as improving public education, solving traffic problems and addressing environmental issues.
The poll also found that people with children in private school and those without school-aged children are just as willing as parents of public-school students to pay additional taxes to make needed repairs to public schools.
Despite the poll's suggestion that there is widespread willingness to pay more taxes for specific initiatives, the chances of a substantial political push for tax hikes is slim.
Republican Gov. Linda Lingle is opposed to tax increases and has said there is money to be found in the state budget by rooting out waste and inefficiency. Democrats also have been leery of raising taxes.
Indeed, in recent years there has been a push to reduce taxes, and legislative leaders have often pointed to the income tax cuts they enacted in 1998 to show they are responsive to the strains that the sluggish state economy have placed on Hawai'i residents.
State tax officials said the Hawai'i income tax rate was last raised in 1966, and the last increase in the general excise tax was in 1965.
Survey experts and political observers caution that it's one thing to say you're willing to pay more taxes for such laudable public initiatives as fixing school buildings, but it's quite another when it actually comes down to paying.
"What is true is that it's a lot easier to say that you're willing to pay something than to really fork out the money," said Ward Research president Rebecca Ward, whose firm conducted the Hawai'i Poll. "So we'll often find that when people talk about willingness to pay for things, we often assume there's a little bit of what I'd call inflation or overestimation."
Pete Sepp, spokesman for the National Taxpayers Union, said public support for a tax increases depends largely on whether voters believe government has a good solution to the problem and have confidence that leaders will spend the money efficiently.
He said a recent Florida ballot initiative to raise taxes to reduce class sizes and a California education initiative passed by a "decisive but not overwhelming" margin of approval. He also said at least a third of recent ballot initiatives in Michigan counties to increase taxes for schools and emergency services failed.
"The more specific you get about dollar amounts and the more people know about how much they are already spending on schools, the more skeptical they're likely to get about approving a tax increase," Sepp said. "Even with education, people will demand value for their money. While voters may approve a round of initiatives or referendums that would raise taxes for education, if schools don't perform with the money they get, they will have to answer a lot of hard questions."
Still, University of Hawai'i political science professor Neal Milner said that despite various nuances that can factor into the poll, "you can sure read into it that people don't have a natural inclination to refuse to pay the taxes. That's a big point."
Mark Krieg, a 45-year-old truck driver from 'Alewa Heights, was among the respondents who said they don't want to pay more taxes as long as they're not sure the money is being spent efficiently.
"I don't think throwing money at problems is going to help it," he said. "It just doesn't do it."
Krieg said the state should "look at all the things that are mandated, and see what we can do without, because when the Democrats have been in power for 40 some years, there's a whole lot of social welfare programs that we could probably do without."
Chris Bell, a 19-year-old Hawai'i Pacific University student from Hawai'i Kai, said he'd be willing to dole out a "couple hundred more" tax dollars a year to improve education, traffic conditions and the environment.
He doesn't have any children, but he said he'd like members of his family and others to receive a good public education. He also said the state should address environmental issues because it affects Hawai'i's tourism industry.
Robin Polhemus, a 38-year-old stay-at-home mother from Kailua, said she'd be willing to pay another 50 percent of what her family of four already pays annually in state taxes.
"If people pitched in, we could have some really awesome public schools." she said. Polhemus and her husband have two children, ages 1 and 3, and she plans to send them to public school.
"As long as I know it's going to be spent toward something positive, I would be thrilled," she said, noting that the money should be spent on areas such as reducing student-teacher ratios, fixing up campuses and providing schools enough supplies and equipment.
With nearly 575,000 people who file state income tax returns, increasing taxes across the board by $100 would conceivably generate up to $57.5 million. Some respondents, while saying they would be willing to pay as much as $100 more a year, said they would prefer a rate increase rather than a flat tax increase.
Reach Lynda Arakawa at email@example.com or at 525-8070.
Tomorrow: How Hawai'i views Gov. Linda Lingle and the Legislature.