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Life’s Certainties: Death, Taxes and Polling on Taxes

In the past couple of weeks, five pollsters added to an already considerable repository of public opinion data on taxes. A full report on the new data and on tax trends can be found at [IMGCAP(1)]

What’s the worst tax? In its April 4-7 poll, Gallup asked people for “the worst tax – that is, the least fair.” The winner: the local property tax, which outstripped the federal income tax, 42 percent to 20 percent. In third place was sales tax (17 percent), followed by Social Security tax (10 percent) and state income tax (7 percent).

In Gallup’s polling, concern about local property taxes has risen dramatically. In 1994, 28 percent said it was the worst tax. Anger about property taxes today looks a bit like sentiment before California passed Proposition 13, the landmark initiative to limit property taxes, in 1978.

In the meantime, Harris Interactive, in a March 28-April 5 poll for the Tax Foundation, asked about the worst, or least fair, federal tax and, separately, about the worst, or least fair state or local tax.

People thought the federal estate tax was the worst federal tax (30 percent) followed by the federal income tax (26 percent), the Social Security tax (15 percent), and the federal corporate income tax (8 percent). In the contest for the worst state or local tax, the local property tax (38 percent) far outstripped the state income tax (19 percent), the state sales tax (18 percent) and the state corporate income tax (7 percent).

Strikingly, the poll found that 68 percent favored “completely eliminating the estate tax — that is, the tax on property left by people who die,” while just 17 percent were opposed. (The wording didn’t suggest that only a small fraction of estates qualify for the tax, which might have affected the answer.)

Top Tax Rate: In the past decade, several pollsters have asked people about the maximum amount they think anyone should have to pay in total taxes. The responses have remained roughly consistent.

In the new Harris Interactive/Tax Foundation poll, when people were asked, “What is the maximum percentage of a person’s income that should go to taxes — that is, all taxes, state, federal, and local?” the mean response was 16 percent. When asked what percentage the typical American actually pays in all taxes, respondents ventured an estimate of 29 percent.

Fairness: Sixty-one percent told Gallup they regarded the income tax they will pay this year as fair; 34 percent said it was not fair. In the April 3-5 Blum and Weprin poll for NBC News, 61 percent said they paid about their fair share in taxes, while 35 percent said they paid more than their fair share and 2 percent said less than their fair share. At the same time, in three new questions, 50 percent to 55 percent said their federal income tax was “too high.”

What Bothers People Most About Taxes? In a March 29-30 poll, 71 percent told Fox News/Opinion Dynamics that they were bothered more by how the government spent their taxes than by how much they paid in taxes. (Only 12 percent said the opposite.) In 2002, the responses were similar — 75 percent and 8 percent — respectively.

In the Tax Foundation poll, 3 percent said they got excellent value from taxes they paid to the federal government; 23 percent said they got a pretty good value, 39 percent said only fair, and 27 percent said poor.

Complexity: In an April 4-6 AP-Ipsos Public Affairs poll, 70 percent said the tax system was too complicated, while 28 percent said it was not. In the Tax Foundation poll, 46 percent said it was very complex and 35 percent said it was somewhat complex.

Polls aren’t of much use in thinking through what should be done about it: The responses vary, depending on what information and choices the respondents are given.

Tax Voters: People who vote based on taxes vote Republican, consistently. It has been true in every exit poll that has had the question since 1984.

In 2004, 9 percent in the Los Angeles Times national exit poll said taxes was one of their top two issues (the top issue was moral/ethical values, cited by 40 percent). Those who checked “taxes” voted 61 percent for President Bush to 38 percent for Sen. John Kerry (D-Mass.).

In the National Election Poll 2004 exit poll, 5 percent checked taxes as their top issue (moral values was the top issue at 22 percent). Tax voters backed Bush to the tune of 57 percent, with 43 percent for Kerry.

Dental Drills or Tax Tables? In the AP/Ipsos poll, 49 percent said that “if they had to choose,” they would prefer going to the dentist, compared to 48 percent who favored preparing their taxes.

Karlyn Bowman is a resident fellow specializing in public opinion and polls at the American Enterprise Institute.

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