By E. J. McMahon
Director, Empire Center for New York State Policy
Looking ahead to a watershed election year, most New York voters are dissatisfied with the performance of their state government, according to the Empire Center's statewide voter survey. Large majorities also believe that state leaders are more responsive to special interests, or to their own personal interests, than to the voters' interests.
By large margins, survey respondents indicated that they were ready to embrace sweeping and fundamental changes in the way the state operates. They also supported constitutional limits on spending by state and local governments. And, defying conventional wisdom, a huge majority agreed that the way to improve schools is not to spend more but to spend existing education funds more effectively.
Conducted by the Siena College Research Institute, the survey was designed to determine New Yorkers' attitudes toward Albany and their opinions of the state's future. Questions were also asked about some other current issues, particularly education. The survey sample consisted of 620 registered voters reached by phone in December 2005. The margin of error for the total sample is plus or minus 3.9 percentage points.
More detailed survey results are presented in the attached report section. A summary and analysis of highlights follows.
Voting with their feet?
Nearly half of the respondents in the total sample said that they either had personally considered moving from New York (41 percent) or had a relative who had considered moving from the state in the past year (8 percent). On a regional basis, the number of voters who had personally considered moving ranged from a low of 39 percent in New York City to 44 percent in western upstate New York. These findings are consistent with recent demographic trends as tracked by the Census Bureau, which recently released estimates showing that New York was one of only three states to suffer a population loss between 2004 and 2005.
READINESS TO LEAVE NEW YORK
Have you personally considered moving from New York State in the past year? (If not) Has a family member?
Asked whether New York would be a better or worse place to live in five years, nearly one-quarter said that they thought it would be worse -- slightly exceeding the one-fifth who said that they expected it would be a better place to live. Roughly half thought that it would be about the same.
Pessimism about the state's future was strongest among upstate respondents, especially in the western region. Thirty-five percent of the western New York residents surveyed said that they expected the state to be a "worse" place in five years, well over double the 14 percent who expected it to be better. Residents of both New York City and its suburbs had a brighter outlook, with more expressing a "better" rather than a "worse" outlook. These findings generally reflect the recent economic growth trends in each region.
Thumbs down on Albany
By a roughly three-to-two margin statewide, survey respondents expressed some level of dissatisfaction with the performance of state government. There was little difference in this result based on party affiliation. On a regional basis, however, negative feelings about Albany were lopsidedly concentrated upstate, where respondents expressed dissatisfaction with state government's performance by roughly a three-to-one margin. New York City and suburban residents were more closely divided on the issue, with just over half in both regions expressing satisfaction with state government.
Fifty-eight percent of statewide respondents said that special interests, such as labor unions, trial lawyers and business groups, have too much influence on elected officials in state government. However, Republicans and independents were much more likely to feel this way than Democrats and New York City residents.
STATE GOVERNMENT PERFORMANCE
Looking at the performance of New York State government, would you say you are very satisfied, somewhat satisfied, somewhat dissatisfied or very dissatisfied with the performance of state government?
Roughly two-thirds of the people in this survey said that they believed that neither the governor nor legislative leaders were acting primarily in the voters' best interests; rather, large majorities said, they felt that these state officials were acting primarily for special interests or in their own self-interest.
SPECIAL INTEREST INFLUENCE
Do you believe that groups such as labor unions, trial lawyers, and business organizations have too much influence, not enough influence, or the right level of influence on elected officials in New York State government?
More than half of the survey respondents said that they were paying too much in state taxes for the quality of services provided. Unhappiness with tax levels was greatest in the western portion of upstate New York.
Resounding sentiment for reform
The survey also revealed a broad degree of support for a trio of reforms instituted in at least some other states but long resisted or ignored by elected officials in New York's capitol.
LIMITS ON STATE AND LOCAL SPENDING
Would you favor or oppose a state constitutional amendment to limit spending increases to the rate of inflation for state and local governments in New York State?
- Term limits for elected state officials were favored by just over two-thirds of the survey respondents.
- Allowing voters to place proposed laws on the ballot -- also known as initiative and referendum, or I&R -- was favored by a three-to-one margin.
- Establishment of an independent, nonpartisan commission to draw new legislative district lines was also favored three to one.
The responses in favor of these reforms were consistent across all groups. Upstate and down, regardless of party affiliation, a large majority of voters backed term limits, I&R and nonpartisan redistricting.
A willingness to set limits
The survey found solid backing for greater fiscal restraint in government. The results also call into question the level of popular support for more money as an education cure-all -- the notion at the heart of a recent court decision ordering billions more in spending on New York City schools.
Fully two-thirds of all the survey respondents favored a state constitutional amendment limiting spending increases to the rate of inflation for state and local governments in New York. The favorable response ranged from 56 percent in New York City to 78 percent in western upstate New York.
Asked whether future state deficits should be closed through spending cuts or tax increases, 64 percent favored spending cuts. Among New York City residents, spending cuts were favored over tax hikes by a ratio of 59 percent to 9 percent; in western upstate New York, the ratio was 70 percent to 3 percent in favor of reducing spending.
A final question began by noting that New York public schools now spend about $12,000 per pupil. The question continued: "Some argue that New York State should spend more money to improve the quality of public education. Others argue we already spend enough but have to spend it better. Which view is closer to your own?"
A whopping 81 percent -- the strongest response for any item in the survey -- replied that existing school funding should be spent more effectively. Even among New York City residents, 74 percent said that more effective spending was a better approach than more money, which was favored by just 21 percent.
Education: thinking locally
Voters were almost evenly divided on the quality of public schools generally in New York State, with 46 percent calling them "good" or "excellent" and 47 percent calling them "poor" or "fair."
When the question was focused closer to home, survey respondents had more positive feelings. Fifty-nine percent assigned their local schools a positive rating, compared to only 33 percent that rated their schools lower. There were significant regional differences in responses to this question, however. Upstate and suburban residents overwhelmingly assigned positive ratings to their schools, but only 38 percent of New York City residents described their local schools as "good" or "excellent." Nearly half of city respondents said that their schools were only "fair" or "poor."
While most suburban New York City residents assigned a positive rating to their local schools, a solid plurality of 42 percent of suburban respondents also said that they thought that their school property taxes were too high for the level of services provided. Upstate residents, more negative on other subjects, generally evinced less unhappiness with the level of their school taxes.
Nearly half of all respondents (49 percent of the total sample) favored a law providing tax dollars to parents to allow them to send their children to the schools of their choice. Unsurprisingly, in view of the weaker quality ratings for New York City schools, support for school choice was strongest among city residents, with 54 percent in favor. Yet even in regions where satisfaction with local public schools was higher, support for tax-funded school choice ranged between 46 and 47 percent.
As noted above, when people in the survey were informed of the average level of per-pupil spending in public schools in New York, four-fifths of the respondents said that more effective spending, rather than more money, was needed to improve school quality.
Medicaid was very much in the headlines last summer, after a series of stories in the New York Times pointed to evidence of billions of dollars of waste, fraud and abuse in the program. In the wake of these articles, the governor and legislative leaders agreed on new steps to fight the problem. But voters, so far, are skeptical; 76 percent in this survey said that they didn't think the state was doing enough to reduce waste, fraud and abuse in Medicaid.
Rising pension costs, like Medicaid, have played a major role in driving up local taxes across the state in recent years. But without being presented with any comparative information on public versus private retirement benefits, only 27 percent of statewide survey respondents thought that public pensions were too high.
INITIATIVE AND REFERENDUM
One proposal some believe would improve the way state government operates is to have "initiative and referendum," where citizens can place proposed laws on the ballot and voters can decide whether or not they should be approved. Do you strongly support, support, oppose or strongly oppose initiative and referendum?
Implications for 2006
In many respects, the survey confirms the impressions left by election returns for the November 2005 statewide referendum on Proposal One, a constitutional amendment that would have greatly strengthened the budgeting power of the state legislature.
The referendum effectively gave voters a chance to side with or against the Albany legislative establishment, which had promoted the amendment as a "reform" that would put an end to late state budgets. Although proponents had a head start and waged a better-funded campaign, Proposal One was soundly defeated in every county outside New York City, by margins ranging from two-to-one in downstate suburbs to three-to-one (or worse) in upstate counties.
The upshot of the survey is this:
From one end of the state to the other, most voters of every party affiliation (or no affiliation) would be open to a public-policy agenda that encourages more direct democracy, more competitive elections, limits on politicians' tenure in office, and fiscally conservative approaches to reining in governmental excesses.
Full Survey Report from Siena College Research Institute>>