PARCA survey indicates lack of confidence in state leaders

Alabama citizens have little confidence that their voice matters in state government, according to a recent public opinion poll.

When asked to agree or disagree with the statement, “Government officials in Montgomery do not especially care what people like me think,” more than two-thirds of Alabamians surveyed (69 percent) disagreed with the statement. When asked to agree or disagree with the statement, “People like me have no say in what the government in Montgomery does,” 63 percent of respondents agreed.

The results were reported in the Spring 2017 Alabama Public Opinion Survey, an annual poll released by the Public Affairs Research Council of Alabama (PARCA). The results are based on a telephone survey of 361 Alabama citizens — conducted by PARCA in collaboration with Samford University in Birmingham — in January.

Though these percentages have remained relatively consistent for the past 10 years, they show a continued disconnect between state leaders and the general population, according to survey director Randolph Horn, professor of political science and director of strategic and applied analysis at Samford.

“There are signs of strained relationships between state residents and public officials in Montgomery,” Horn said.

“Further there are signs of alienation from state government (when) majorities indicate that officials in Montgomery don’t care what they think and that they have no say in what the government in Montgomery does.”

Respondents also were asked about other areas of state government, including education, health care and public safety. Education was the top spending priority. Health care for the poor and elderly was second, followed by public safety, including prisons and law enforcement. The state’s road and highway priorities came in fourth.

Top priority

Those priorities have remained somewhat stable for the past four years. However, respondents naming education as their top priority dropped from 48 percent in 2016 to a little more than 38 percent in 2017. Slightly more respondents identified health care as their top priority in 2017 than did in 2016. Those with lower incomes and lower levels of education were more likely to list health care as a top priority.

When it comes to the education budget, a majority of respondents (76 percent) believes money for education should be kept separate from other state funds. Alabama earmarks certain revenue streams to pay for specific state services. For example, education is funded primarily through income and sales tax dollars. A majority of respondents (63.9 percent) said earmarking revenue for education is a good idea.

“Widespread support for revenue earmarking and for keeping the education budget separate from the general fund budget suggests that residents don’t trust officials to adequately fund education without such restrictions,” Horn said.

Most respondents (72 percent) believe Alabama spends too little on education. However, when it comes to the way education money is spent, many believe there could be improvements. When asked if education dollars are spent properly or not properly, almost two-thirds of respondents (63.5 percent) said not properly, citing too many administrators as the top reason.

When asked whether the state should spend more, less or the same amount of money on 12 specific school programs or resources, a majority of respondents (more than 50 percent) indicated that more should be spent on teacher salaries and professional development, classroom supplies, music and the arts, technology and security. Increased spending on textbooks, Pre-K classes and transportation received less support.

A substantial majority of those surveyed (76.7 percent) believe funding makes a difference in educational quality, which may be why respondents supported increased or level spending for most programs and resources currently available to Alabama schools.

More than half of those surveyed said they would be willing to pay more in taxes to avoid cuts in health care and education. A majority of respondents also expressed willingness to pay more in taxes to avoid cuts in public safety but most were unwilling to pay more for highways.

Alabama residents tend to trust local officials more than they do state or federal officials to handle tax dollars though public trust is generally low. When asked to rate their level of trust on a scale from 1 to 10 where 10 represents the highest level of trust and 1 represents the lowest level, Alabamians rated trust for local government to handle school funds properly at 5.6 out of 10. The ability of state government to handle school funds properly was rated 4.7 out of 10 and federal government 4.1 out of 10.

The results of the PARCA survey suggest public officials at all levels of government have many opportunities to demonstrate more responsiveness to public concerns, especially when it comes to spending and policy making, Horn said.

“Residents expect higher levels of investment in public policy priorities — like education and health care — and better stewardship of those investments,” Horn said.

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