Recently state Senator Raymond Lesniak introduced a 5-cents-per-year-over-three-years increase in the NJ state gasoline tax, which is nearly the lowest in the nation and has not been raised in 20+ years. We polled on this back in February, finding limited support for an increase. Overall, the numbers haven’t moved – about two-thirds of New Jerseyans were against it then, and two-third remain opposed now. Or do they?
The initial question we asked was simply about a proposed gas tax increase dedicated to paying for road maintenance and improvements. No real context and no amount specified. This is what 66 percent oppose.
But we decided to go further. We next asked opponents to make a choice between an increase (again amount unspecified) in the gas tax OR borrowing the necessary money. Opponents split – given the choice, 39 percent would raise the gas tax, while 40 percent would borrow money. The rest were either unsure or denied that either was an appropriate option. Combined with initial supporters, this suggests that given a choice between increasing the gas tax and borrowing, a clear majority would support a higher gas tax.
We added one more twist. We did a little experiment where we varied the information provided about the gas tax increase. Everyone was told it would be a nickel per year over three years and would raise an additional $250 million per year for road and bridge repairs. Then we divided respondents into three groups. Group 1 go the additional information that the tax would increase gas prices by 1.5 percent per year. Group 2 was fold that the increase would double the state’s share of the gas tax. And group 3 was told experts say NJ needs to spend $21 billion over 5 years to fix crumbing roads and bridges.
What happened? All THREE groups become significantly more supportive of the tax increase. Group 1 moves to58 percent support, and group 3 to 57 percent. Group 2 remains less convinced, with 48 percent supporting the gas tax given this additional information.
The takeaway is clear: it’s one thing to just ask New Jerseyans about tax increases. It’s another to give them enough context to understand the impact of those increases.
The full text of the release follows.
STRONG OPPOSITION TO HIGHER GAS TAX DECREASES AS NEW JERSEYANS LEARN WHY MORE REVENUE IS NEEDED
NEW BRUNSWICK, N.J. – While winter weather hammered the state’s already crumbling roads, New Jerseyans appear to remain opposed to raising the gas tax to pay for repairs, according to the latest Rutgers-Eagleton Poll. Two-thirds oppose paying more for gas, even with the resulting revenue dedicated to road maintenance. Only 31 percent support an increase.
But all may not be lost for proponents such as Assembly Speaker Vincent Prieto and Sen. Raymond Lesniak, who last month introduced a gas tax increase in the state Senate. When forced to choose between a higher tax and borrowing money for repairs, 39 percent of initial opponents express a willingness to raise the tax. About as many would prefer continued borrowing to cover costs. Including initial supporters, a majority of all New Jerseyans give some support to a higher gas tax, if borrowing is the only other choice. But 16 percent reject both options, insisting road maintenance and improvements are not needed.
Moreover, opposition to a higher gas tax fades when respondents are given some context around the proposal. To test the role of additional information, the poll placed respondents into three random groups, giving each a different set of details. All groups were told that a five-cent increase raises $250 million per year dedicated to road and bridge repairs.
One group then was told gas costs would increase by only 1.5 percent annually. The effect is dramatic. With this information, support outpaced opposition, 58 percent to 38 percent. When another group was told the state needed $21 billion over five years for to fix crumbling roads and bridges, supporters also topped opponents, 57 percent to 40 percent.
But when informed the proposed increase would double the state’s share of the gas tax over three years, residents were less positive: supporters barely outnumbered opponents, 48 percent to 45 percent.
“Not surprisingly, the first reaction of most New Jerseyans is, ‘Please, no more taxes!’” said David Redlawsk, director of the Rutgers-Eagleton Poll and professor of political science at Rutgers. “But our experiment shows that if they know more details, residents think the proposed gas tax increase may be a reasonable option, assuming it is dedicated to fixing roads and bridges.”
Results are from a statewide poll of 816 New Jersey adults contacted by live callers on both landlines and cell phones from March 31 to April 6, 2014. The poll has a margin of error of +/-3.9 percentage points.
Republicans, younger residents, lower wage-earners strongest opponents
No demographic group gives majority support for a higher gas tax when no context is given: 73 percent of Republicans, 67 percent of independents, and 63 percent of Democrats are opposed to a higher gas tax generally. Only 24 percent of Republicans, 31 percent of independents and 35 percent of Democrats favor a gas tax hike in general terms.
Respondents whose family budgets would likely be less adversely affected by higher fuel costs are somewhat less opposed. Sixty-one percent of New Jerseyans in households earning $100,000 or more are opposed to an increase, while 37 percent support it. Opposition grows to more than 70 percent for those with lower incomes, with 27 percent of this group supporting an increase.
Opposition also varies by age, with the strongest negativity (76 percent) in the 35 to 49 age group, where only 22 percent support a gas tax increase. Support among seniors is higher at 39 percent, but this still leaves 60 percent opposed.
Perhaps surprisingly, individuals’ daily time behind the wheel has little effect on opposition to a tax increase. Whether rarely venturing out or fighting traffic for 90 minute or more, opposition remains steady.
Higher tax or increased debt?
When initial opponents of a higher gas tax must choose between an increase or borrowing to fund road repairs, even many Republicans – usually the most vehement opponents of tax increases –revise their original position. Republican gas tax opponents split on a tax increase over borrowing, 38 percent to 39 percent, but 19 percent think neither option should be pursued. Among Democrats who first opposed a tax increase, 47 percent prefer to borrow for repairs, 35 percent support a higher tax and 16 percent say neither. Independent opponents are most likely to prefer a higher tax over borrowing, 42 percent to 36 percent, with 14 percent refusing either option.
Overall, by combining initial supporters with those who would prefer a gas tax increase over borrowing, a majority of Democrats (58 percent), independents (60 percent) and even Republicans (53 percent) are found to be supportive of a tax increase.
“Borrowing more money for road repairs appears to be even more distasteful than raising gas taxes for many New Jerseyans,” said Redlawsk. “The choices are not good – pay now or pay more later – and as a result, the usual differences across political parties are washed out. Some people think nothing should be done, but most appear to recognize there is a need to fix roads.”
A similar pattern holds with household income. Initial opponents in households with incomes under $100,000 are slightly more in favor of borrowing than an increased tax bite, 44 percent to 34 percent. Higher-income households say the opposite; 43 percent favor a tax hike, 37 percent want more borrowing. Combined, more than half of residents in all income brackets are inclined to support a higher tax if forced to choose between these alternatives.
A majority of every age group shows combined support as well, even middle-aged New Jerseyans who were originally the strongest opponents. Women, who were initially less in favor of a higher gas tax than men (28 percent to 34 percent), are seven points more likely to support an increase if the only other option is borrowing. As a result, 58 percent of both genders supporting a gas tax increase.
More information has double-digit impact on support
New Jerseyans’ general distaste for taxes comes through loud and clear when asked a simple question about raising the gas tax. However, given a more complete picture, their opposition all but melts away, although the level of support is somewhat dependent on the information provided.
Each of three groups of respondents was told the revenue projection from a nickel increase in the gas tax and also offered additional information. Learning that a five-cent increase results in a 1.5 percent rise in gas prices caused a 27-point increase over this group’s initial support. The other two scenarios had somewhat smaller, but still significant, impacts. Respondents told the state gas tax would double over three years were 21 points more likely to support an increase than they had been. Those who learned that the state needs to spend $21 billion over five years to repair its crumbling infrastructure showed a 19-point increase in support over the initial question.
“In the original question, we did not specify how large an increase, nor how much money it would raise,” noted Redlawsk. “This baseline tells us that New Jerseyans just see dollars flying from their pockets when taxes are mentioned. But explaining the size of the increase – a nickel per gallon each year – changes the game, and increases the chances of support, even if the increase is presented as doubling the tax. And when reminded how bad things really are, many more also see a tax increase as an acceptable option.”