Since you put it that way

It’s all in the question that’s asked.

Do you like taxes? Seriously, who’s going to say “yes” based only on that question?

So it’s a bit odd that KSTP-TV let the phrasing of a question on its poll recently about the “gas tax” stand.

The question asked was:

Last month the Minnesota legislature passed a transportation funding bill that will raise the state gas tax, raise license registration fees and allow counties in the metro area to raise the sales tax in order to pay for highway and transit projects. Do you support or oppose that legislation?

Well, that depends on what the legislation does, doesn’t it? If I were to ask you, would you favor or oppose spending $1,200 out of your savings account this week, aren’t you going to ask me another question before you answered, so that you can find out whether it was being spent on muffins or, say, a new family room?

Compare the wording of the question with one MPR used last spring:

There is a proposal before the Minnesota State Legislature to raise the gasoline tax by 10 cents per gallon to pay for improvements to roads and bridges.

In that poll, 59 percent (not that much different from the KSTP results) were opposed to the dime increase, but it was a fairly even split on the idea of a nickel increase.

The Star Tribune Minnesota Poll in October asked:

Would you be willing to pay more in gasoline taxes in order to pay more for increased inspection and repair of bridges?

And got a different answer: A — statistically speaking — even split. But notice that no mention was made of how much of a tax would be involved — another sin of omission.

And that’s the real question underlying the tax debate: not that there are taxes, but that people do or don’t feel they’re getting value for their taxes.

If you asked the people in the Worthington area, for example, “do you want Minnesota 60 expanded?” the results would probably be “yes.”

Now, there might be a second part of the question, “do you want the gas tax raised to pay for that?” And the results of that end of the question might be entirely different. But we don’t know, since people weren’t given that type of question.

There are a lot of questions about this poll, mostly because questions weren’t asked, and that’s a shame because it would be good information.

  • brian

    I’m glad you brought this up. I don’t think we talk enough about how much the structure of a poll effects its results.

    This also ties into the debate about the gas tax in general. Gov. Pawlenty hopes we hear “the legislature raised taxes, how do you like that?” and the DFL hopes we hear “Do you want better roads? Do you think the people that use the roads should have to pay for the increased funding?”

  • Alison

    These polls are used to sway people by sound bite. I don’t think MPR’s question was all that much better than the rest. It also leaves many unanswered questions such as: What roads and bridges are you talking about, state or local? What is the alternative? Will the money otherwise be taken away from some other part of government? Will the money otherwise come out of already stretched local budgets? Will this alleviate other taxes like property or income taxes? How much does the state think it actually needs to do the work properly, and how does that compare to the proposal? What happens if people drive less or get more feul efficient cars than projected?

    I don’t like polls about these sorts of complex issues because they will end up in some sort of bias due to the simplicity required for a decent poll question. Please stop asking simple questions about complex issues.

  • Bob Collins

    The problem, of course, is the average person really may not know the parameters of the transportation debate in Minnesota. My guess is most don’t know the gas tax is presently constitutionally dedicated.

    Complicating the situation is the conflicting information. Just a few years ago, voters approved the use of the Motor Vehicle Sales Tax for transportation issues and THAT was supposed to alleviate some of the problems. And we STILL don’t know how that’s going to work because that was to be phased in and dedicating that money WILL have an effect on other non-transportation programs.

    As Brian pointed out, the poll that is conducted in November WILL be exactly as he described.

    Maybe the next poll should ask people whether they favor appropriating money in a budget via the state constitution.

  • Alison

    As Bob pointed out:

    “The problem, of course, is the average person really may not know the parameters of the transportation debate in Minnesota.”

    This of course is exactly why MPR shouldn’t be asking the question in a poll to the general public. You wouldn’t think of asking people “Is reversed phase LC/MS the best way to accurately quantitate a mixture of neutral oligomers?” The question is too complex for the average person to understand. Transportation funding in this state is similarly too complex for an unstudied person to give a reasonable answer.

  • Bob Collins

    I don’t disagree with you, Alison, and the poll doesn’t exist in a vacuum, of course (disclaimer: I have nothing to do with the polling here).

    I’m not a big fan of polls in the first place, as I’ve written in the past. These sorts of polls, basically, become a form of push polling.

    All that said, what are the chances the voters in November base their decision on a small number of factors rather than the totality of the issue?

  • Alison

    Sadly, you’re right, Bob. The majority of voters in November will decide based only a few issues determined by either the politicians or media to be important and the misleading rhetoric about them.