By KELLY WILSON, Capital News Service
ANNAPOLIS (Jan. 15, 2008) - Support among Marylanders for life imprisonment as an alternative to the death penalty is rising, according to a recent poll conducted by Gonzales Research & Marketing Strategies.
The poll also found that approval of Gov. Martin O'Malley's performance has fallen in the aftermath of November's special legislative session, which resulted in several tax increases aimed at closing a state budget gap. In a surprise, voters told pollsters that taxes are the most important issue currently facing the state.
The poll of 848 regular Maryland voters was conducted between Jan. 4 and Jan. 11, and had a margin of error of plus or minus 3.5 percentage points.
Support for life in prison as a more appropriate alternative to the death penalty climbed to 48 percent from 42 percent in a 2001 poll. Responses favoring the death penalty have dropped from 45 percent to 42 percent over the same period.
The question of the death penalty is often presented in a vacuum, leaving respondents believing their choice is between executing and releasing convicts, said Jane Henderson, executive director of Maryland Citizens Against State Execution.
"Life imprisonment without the possibility of parole is an effective and viable alternative to the death penalty and when people see that they let go of their support for the death penalty," Henderson said.
A bill to abolish the death penalty failed to get out of a Senate committee last year despite strong support from O'Malley.
The poll showed approval for O'Malley's performance at 39 percent, down from 46 percent in Gonzales's October poll. Also, for the first time in 20 years of Gonzales polling, taxes were the issue most on residents' minds.
"When we do polling we routinely ask `What is the most important issue facing the state?'" said Laslo Boyd, a partner of Gonzales Research. "Most often the top-rated issue is health care or education, and taxes are usually relatively low on the list, but this year that was much higher."
The poll comes just after the end of the special session, which passed new taxes and increased old ones in an effort to close Maryland's $1.7 billion budget shortfall. Boyd said the tax increases are likely behind O'Malley's lower ratings.
"All you can do is correlate them," he said. "I think it's pretty clear it's because of the special session."
Delegate Michael Smigiel, R-Upper Shore, also said there was an obvious link.
"The feeling by people is `but you told us it was going to be all right,'" Smigiel said. Had O'Malley been more forthright about the extent and severity of the taxes, he said, Marylanders might have been more accepting.
But the governor's office said the special session was about doing the right thing.
"The job of a public servant is not always about popularity," said Christine Hansen, the governor's deputy press secretary. "The governor has made tough decisions for the long-term benefit of the citizens of Maryland."
Much of the support for the governor in the poll came from African Americans, 53 percent of whom approved of O'Malley's performance and 62 percent of whom said the state on the whole is heading in the right direction. Support among whites was 34 percent for both.
Across all race, sex, party and regional lines the poll showed a majority of Marylanders would vote in favor of slot machines if the referendum, scheduled for November, were held today.