Do more Minnesotans want lower taxes, or services that require taxes?
There are different answers above and below the surface
By Eric Garcia McKinley
“I don’t know off the top of my head. Lowering taxes.”
That was one response to the broadest open-ended question on the recent MPR News | APM Research Lab Ground Level Survey of 1,654 Minnesotans. The question was about change. It asked: “If there is ONE thing that you would like to see changed in Minnesota to improve our state, what would that be?”
The response above (“I don’t know…”) suggests a lack of conviction behind the recommendation. It’s as if that particular respondent just picked the obvious thing to say for such a wide-ranging question. But however unconsidered that specific response may have been, “lower taxes” was the most common specific recommendation made in response to the question about change. And many of the others were much more direct.
But “lower my taxes” strikes me as a simplification of what Minnesotans think about what would improve the state. While reading through all of the responses to the survey’s “one change” question, I was taken by how many people wanted a change that would require sustained taxes—reprioritization of existing revenue toward the respondent’s central concern—or the generation of new revenue, likely through taxation.
Another finding from the survey reinforced this feeling: Minnesotans generally feel that their tax dollars provide good value. The straightforward “lower my taxes” responses overshadow the indirect calls for either preserving or increasing tax revenue, as implied by respondents calling for improvements to a variety of state-sponsored services or infrastructure.
My curiosity led me to go through all of the responses to identify desired changes that would require some sort of tax dollars. We can call them “tax-conditional services.” I included any response that specifically mentioned more “funding” or “spending.” “Spending more money on education” and “more funding for parks and bike trails,” for example. I did not include things like “colleges should be more affordable” because that could be accomplished with lower tuition.
I also included every response expressing new or improved public services, as well as pithy responses like “infrastructure” because I couldn’t think of a way to improve the material foundations of the state without tax dollars. Conversely, I did not include things like “better education for the children” because while it could imply increased funding, it could also simply mean something like de-emphasizing standardized testing.
Using these parameters, I found that 14 percent of the respondents asked for tax-conditional services as the thing the person would like to change most—more than the 10 percent who explicitly mentioned “lower taxes.” Slicing the responses this way suggests that more Minnesotans surveyed were recommending preserving or enhancing “tax-conditional services” than those who wanted lower taxes.
This approach is not perfect; I have not gone through the responses to find responses that indirectly recommend changes that could lower taxes. For example, respondents who expressed “cutting welfare” and “less construction” as the things they’d want to change could reasonably be tied to taxes because they ask for cutting tax-conditional services.
Additionally, we don’t know how people would have responded to follow-up questions. Perhaps the people who wanted to lower taxes would have demurred if followed by a question about education funding and road maintenance. Similarly, maybe the person who wanted “fully funded education, K-12 through college” would have hesitated if then asked about how much of a tax increase would be acceptable to make that change possible.
A rich trove of opinion can be found in the Ground Level open-ended responses. I would encourage you to read our more comprehensive report on responses to the “one change” question. But don’t stop there. Take some time to read through the actual verbatim responses to this and other open-ended survey questions and find the themes that you think emerge from Minnesotans from all parts of the state. There’s a lot there—even, maybe especially—in indecisive suggestions for change.
Eric Garcia McKinley, Ph.D. (@garcia_mckinley), is an ACLS/Mellon Public Fellow and Senior Research Analyst for Engagement and Inclusion at American Public Media. Over the past several months he has been spending part of his time with the APM Research Lab, including helping to analyze thousands of open-ended responses to the Ground Level Survey. Find out more about Eric and the work he is doing here.