The Chicken or the Egg: A Recent History of Public Opinion and Tax Reform in Florida
McCabe, Barbara Coyle, Stream, Christopher, Journal of Public Budgeting, Accounting & Financial Management
Public dislike of taxes led to tax revolt and tax reform. Despite the connection between tax attitudes and tax policy, relatively little is known about public attitudes toward taxes over time, and how public opinion either shapes or is shaped by changes in tax policy. We examine the link between opinion and changes in tax policy in Florida, where the public's view of sales and property taxes was surveyed consistently from 1979-1997, a time when both taxes changed significantly. This combination of tax reform and survey data allows us to observe the pattern of public opinion before, during, and after changes in tax policy, and to draw inferences about whether public opinion leads or lags state action, while examining common explanations for individual differences in opinion. Among other things, our results indicate that the portrait of an anti-tax populace is overdrawn and that the pattern of opinion differs for each tax.
Public opinion on taxes is credited with bringing about state tax reform, beginning with California's proposition 13 in 1978. In the most extreme example, the tax revolt was depicted as a majoritarian, grassroots movement (Kuttner, 1980), a characterization bolstered by the fact that many state tax limits were enacted as citizen initiatives (Hansen, 1983). Even before the tax revolt, public opinion literature found that taxes were a salient policy issue. Most of this salience was firmly anti-tax (Lowery, 1985), which suggests that tax limitation efforts tapped into a longstanding popular discontent with taxes. Apparently acting on this representation of an anti-tax populace, state politicians time the enactment of new taxes or tax increases as far from the next election as possible, presumably to avoid public displeasure at the polls (Berry & Berry, 1992; 1994). Despite the apparent importance of public opinion to tax policy, relatively little is known about the pattern of public attitudes toward taxes over time, and how those attitudes either shape or are shaped by changes in tax policy.
Most studies trying to explain state tax revolts examined public opinion only after tax limits were enacted (Courant, Gramlich, & Rubinfeld, 1980; Ladd & Wilson, 1982; Sears & Citrin, 1982), which frustrates efforts to see whether public discontent over taxes was growing before tax limits were enacted. Other studies examining tax opinion over time have relied on national surveys (see, for example, the series of surveys sponsored by the advisory commission on intergovernmental relations (ACIR), various years). These data show a consistent, strong preference for sales taxes over property taxes, and provide an important sense of overall attitudes. They cannot, however, be used to explore links between opinion and policy in specific states. We attempt to fill this gap in the research. In this article, we examine the link between public opinion and changes in tax policy in Florida, where the public's view of sales and property taxes was surveyed consistently from 1979 through 1997. During this period, the retail sales tax was increased, a sales tax on services was enacted only to be repealed and the property tax experienced both thwarted and successful citizen initiative campaigns. The Florida case offers a unique combination of tax reform and survey data in which the pattern of public opinion can be observed before, during and after changes in tax policy.
PUBLIC OPINION AND POLICY CHANGE
For more than 50 years, opinion polls have taken the public pulse on an increasingly wide range of topical policy issues and political figures. The picture that emerges from most opinion studies is a snapshot of mass attitudes at a specific time, along with accounts of the views of different categories of individuals. At the individual level, policy preferences have been depicted as mercurial and governed by pocketbook- level self-interest (Converse, 1964; 1970; Campbell, Converse, Miller & Stokes, 1960). …