FRANKFORT — Likely Kentucky voters give state legislators a failing grade and say adding electronic slot machines at horse racetracks is the best way to pump money into the state's depleted coffers, according to a new Kentucky Poll.
The telephone survey of 600 likely voters shows that only 26 percent approve of the job the 138-member legislature is doing, while 61 percent disapprove. Thirteen percent were not sure about the performance of the General Assembly, which concluded its annual session April 15 without a two-year spending plan.
Voters overwhelmingly prefer Gov. Steve Beshear's proposal to expand gambling at racetracks as a way to balance the state's books over three other options presented in the poll, including cuts to education and health programs, closing tax loopholes for businesses and expanding the sales tax.
Forty-five percent of likely voters said lawmakers should balance the budget with tax revenue generated by adding slots. The three other options garnered support from a combined 30 percent of respondents. Another 25 percent were not sure about the issue.
The Kentucky Poll was conducted by Research 2000 of Olney, Md., on May 2 to 4. It was commissioned by the Lexington Herald-Leader, WKYT-TV and WAVE-TV in Louisville and has a margin of error of plus or minus four percentage points.
Legislators said Friday they were not surprised by the public's dim view of lawmakers or voters' preference for slots over other budget fixes.
Still, Beshear said Friday that the expansion of gambling at racetracks will not be part of an expected special legislative session in May to address the state budget.
"As repeated polls have shown, including this one, Kentuckians overwhelmingly support this revenue-producing option over severe cuts to needed programs and to support our struggling industry," Beshear said.
House and Senate leaders quickly dismissed Beshear's January proposal to generate more than $750 million over two years by allowing slots, but were unable to reach a deal on their own proposed spending plans in April despite weeks of negotiations.
The key sticking point was the Democratic-led House's proposal to borrow more than $1 billion to rebuild dilapidated schools and extend water and sewer lines. The Republican-led Senate rejected the projects plan, saying the state shouldn't go deeper into debt during bad economic times. Both plans would have slashed some government spending on education and health programs, although the Senate plan cut deeper.
Beshear declined to comment on the legislature's poor approval numbers.
Many legislators said they were surprised that voters weren't more critical.
"I think they sound pretty good — all things considered," said Rep. Bill Farmer, R-Lexington, of the public's view. "I would expect 100 percent disapproval because we had a job to do and we didn't do it."
Senate Majority Leader Robert Stivers, R-Manchester, said he understood voters' frustration, but said the public also tends to lump the state legislature in with Congress, whose approval ratings also are in the doldrums.
"Part of it is they equate some of the problems at the national level to us," Stivers said. "In tough economic times, there is more general discontent with elected leaders."
The legislature's approval rating has actually gone up compared with a 2008 poll, but only slightly. In May 2008, just after lawmakers finished another contentious session dominated by a failed proposal to allow casinos in Kentucky, only 22 percent of voters said they approved of the legislature, while 66 percent disapproved.
Gambling and taxes
Even with the plurality of voters backing expanded gambling, the issue still polarizes both chambers, legislators said. In the House, a proposal to allow electronic slot machines at tracks narrowly passed last summer, only to die in the Senate budget committee.
But legislators said they were surprised that the poll showed voters were more interested in raising revenue than cutting programs. A distant second to raising money through slots was expanding sales taxes to more services — favored by 14 percent of voters — followed by reducing tax breaks at 9 percent and cutting education and health programs at 7 percent.
House Speaker Greg Stumbo, D-Prestonsburg, said the results prove that the public backs the House budget plan.
"It shows the vast majority of voters in Kentucky are not in favor of cutting education and critical health care programs," Stumbo said in a written statement. He added that the public wants slots, which "the House has already passed and that I think would pass the Senate as well if its leadership would allow a vote by its members."
Democrats were much more interested in expanding both gambling and altering the sales tax than Republicans. About 56 percent of Democrats support gambling compared with 33 percent of Republicans.
But Farmer said there were likely holes in the poll because 44 percent of Republicans did not choose any of the budget-balancing options. That could show that the option they were looking for was not presented, he said.
Farmer said he was pleased that some people are considering the expansion of sales taxes as a way to shore up the state's budget problems.
He has pushed for an overhaul of the state's tax system that would eliminate state income taxes and apply the sales tax to more services, such as auto repairs and accounting. Rep. Jim Wayne, D-Louisville, has also pushed for a tax overhaul, including an expansion of the sales tax.
Wayne said the poll shows that the proposal may be gaining traction with voters.
"I think it's surprising in light of the push back from the Tea Party members," Wayne said. "I think what may be getting through to voters is that people don't want cuts to human services and education."
Stivers said many voters do not necessarily understand the intricacies of the state budget. But once the differences between the House and the Senate plan are explained, many realize that the Republican Senate plan — which includes more cuts —— is more responsible.
"They believe that the position that the Senate has held is a much more viable and realistic position," Stivers said.