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In poll, edge goes to sales tax cut

Voters sharply divided amid intense effort to defeat state measure

By Alan Wirzbicki
Globe Staff / September 27, 2010

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Massachusetts voters are deeply split over a November ballot question that would slash the state sales tax, a new Globe poll indicates, with a narrow plurality of those surveyed saying they favor the proposal.

Forty-six percent of likely voters said they support Question 3, to cut the sales tax from 6.25 percent to 3 percent, while 43 percent said they were opposed and the rest undecided. The difference is within the poll’s margin of error.

The tax cut proposal, which would slice $2.5 billion from the state budget, has alarmed Beacon Hill and is opposed by all three major gubernatorial candidates, although all three say they would honor the tax cut if it is backed by a majority of voters.

Critics say it would have a devastating impact on the state by leading to massive layoffs and deep cuts to education, local aid, and law enforcement.

Also on the ballot this fall is a measure that would exempt alcohol from the sales tax. It is opposed by half of likely voters, the Globe poll found. Fifty percent said they were against it, and 36 percent said they were in favor.

Both issues will be on the Nov. 2 ballot, with a “no’’ vote preserving the tax rates at their current levels and a “yes’’ vote cutting them.

A broad coalition of opponents, including unions, business groups, and most of the state’s political leadership, has mobilized in favor of a “no’’ vote against the tax cuts in Question 3, amassing a $1.3 million war chest to defeat the measure. The “yes’’ campaign is led by Carla Howell, a libertarian activist who organized the signature drive to place the question on the ballot.

Other tax-cut measures have failed in the past; proposals to eliminate the state income tax were defeated in 2002 and 2008.

But the new poll suggests many voters are receptive to the antitax campaign this year. Supporters of the sales tax rollback have far less organized backing than opponents, but have vowed a grass-roots campaign.

In the Globe poll, a large percentage of respondents on both sides said they felt strongly about the issue, suggesting a polarized atmosphere that was reflected in follow-up interviews with respondents.

“We need a freer hand in everyday life,’’ said William J. Blake, 85, a retired doctor in Jefferson who favors the sales tax rollback.

But Anna Kirwan, 61, an editor and children’s book author from Easthampton, said she opposed Question 3 and considered the antitax measures ridiculous.

“The government needs tax money to survive on. If we start cutting sales taxes, what do they think is going to pay for education and to fix the potholes?’’ she said. “I don’t have any objection to paying taxes for those purposes, because I’m not going to fill the potholes. Somebody’s got to do it.’’

Though the poll shows significant support for Question 3, Andrew E. Smith, director of the University of New Hampshire Survey Center, which conducted the Globe survey, cautioned that undecided voters on ballot issues often gravitate to the “no’’ side.

“Voters tend to be more supportive of the devil they know than the devil they don’t know,’’ he said.

The poll of 522 Massachusetts adults — 471 of which were likely voters — was taken Sept. 17-22. The likely voter sample has a margin of error of plus or minus 4.5 percent; the full sample has a margin of error of plus or minus 4.3 percent.

The alcohol tax collects far less money, roughly $100 million a year. Until last year, alcohol sold in package stores was not subject to the sales tax, since it was already subject to a separate excise tax. Package store owners who organized the effort to put Question 1 on the ballot say the tax is unfair and has hurt their business.

But even some who were in favor of cutting the sales tax were not persuaded by the pleas of liquor store owners. Thomas Haskell, 45, a salesman in Longmeadow, said he favored cutting the overall sales tax but didn’t think alcohol should be treated any differently from other goods.

“The tax on alcohol should be the same as anything else,’’ he said.

On other state issues, the Globe poll found Massachusetts residents supported Cape Wind but were leery of its impact on energy prices; were evenly split on casino gambling; and widely favored stronger measures to prevent illegal immigrants from getting public benefits.

On Cape Wind, 69 percent of respondents said they support the controversial wind-energy project in waters off Cape Cod, while only 20 percent are opposed. But half of respondents said they would not support paying any additional money for electricity from Cape Wind.

Power from Cape Wind is expected to cost roughly twice as much as electricity from fossil fuels, but will be only a small part of the region’s electricity load.

Still, many respondents said they would be in favor of paying higher rates if it meant getting electricity from cleaner sources. Forty-two percent said they would be willing to pay more, while 7 percent were unsure.

Of the three major gubernatorial candidates, only Governor Deval Patrick favors Cape Wind. Republican Charles D. Baker and independent Timothy P. Cahill both oppose the project, though the poll found that 96 percent of Cahill’s voters support it.

On gambling, 40 percent of those surveyed approved of the collapse of a deal to bring casinos to Massachusetts and perhaps also slot machines at racetracks, while 45 percent said they lamented the bill’s failure.

And on immigration, a flashpoint in the state and nationally this year, 60 percent of respondents favored stronger measures to ensure that illegal immigrants do not receive public benefits, while 26 percent were opposed.

Alan Wirzbicki can be reached at awirzbicki@globe.com.