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Anchorage-area residents overwhelmingly want a solution to the state's fiscal gap this year, which they believe must include a constitutional cap on spending, according to a new poll released this morning.
The results lend support to both sides of the debate currently going on in the Capitol.
The poll was conducted Feb. 15 through Wednesday by Dittman Research Corp. of Anchorage, a veteran political polling firm. It was limited to the Anchorage area simply because it was tacked on to another poll that already was being conduced, said pollster Dave Dittman. About half the state's population is in the Anchorage area.
In the survey, 68 percent of respondents agreed with the statement that Gov. Tony Knowles and the Legislature "need to find a solution to Alaska's budget gap this year." The question posed did not mention possible solutions.
A quarter said a response could wait until next year, and 7 percent were unsure.
Support for action in 2002 was found across most party lines, although Democrats and nonpartisans favored it somewhat more strongly than Republicans.
That part of the poll backs the stance of the Fiscal Policy Caucus, a bipartisan group of legislators pushing for new state revenue. Those legislators note that a key reserve fund is headed for depletion in 2004, leaving the state with a shortfall of $1 billion or more. Because some taxes can take several months or a year to implement, action can't wait until the 2003 session, caucus members say.
On the other hand, 66 percent of Anchorage-area residents said they support a constitutional amendment to limit spending.
Such an amendment has passed the Senate and is awaiting action in the House Finance Committee.
The sponsor, Senate Finance Co-Chairman Dave Donley of Anchorage, said the proposed 2 percent annual limit on increases in the state general fund and certain other nonfederal funds is necessary to build public confidence that new taxes won't be wasted on additional programs but will be used to fill the state fiscal gap.
"It's going to be really tough to get anything through if there isn't a limitation on spending," Dittman said. But the public probably would accept simultaneous passage of a spending cap and new revenue measures, even though the constitutional amendment would require approval by voters in November, he said. "I think they could go together."
Although Donley and other Republicans are the main proponents of the spending cap, Anchorage-area Democrats actually were slightly stronger in their support than Republicans.
Critics have said the amendment would squeeze the state budget even if economic growth or increased university tuition provided more state money. They also say it shouldn't be an excuse for failing to act this year.
But the conventional political wisdom now is that the House will pass the amendment, if only to get the Senate to negotiate on new taxes or use of permanent fund earnings.
In the poll, 26 percent of respondents opposed the spending cap, and 8 percent said they were unsure.
Dittman said he found that those who want action on the fiscal gap also are likelier to view the 2002 state elections as unusually important, indicating that they're likelier to vote.