By KAREN ANDERSON
ANNAPOLIS (Sept. 22, 2009)—The weak economy and the resulting budget deficit remain the most pressing concerns facing the state and solutions might require sacrifices Marylanders don't support, according to a statewide poll released on Tuesday by Gonzales Research and Marketing Strategies.
In other states such a contradiction might create a problem for incumbent office holders, but that may not be the case in Maryland where Democrats hold an overwhelming majority.
"Any time the economy is weak, any time people feel insecure, an incumbent has to be worried because they're the natural venting point for the public," said Todd Eberly, an assistant professor of political science at St. Mary's College of Maryland. "But the party advantage enjoyed by Democrats in Maryland gives them a great deal of cushion."
The Gonzales poll found that 43 percent of voters named the economy as the most important issue facing the state and 75 percent said they think Maryland's budget issues are "a very big problem."
But when asked how to fix the budget, the majority of voters opposed the seven solutions suggested in the survey. For instance, 80 percent opposed reducing state aid for public education, 70 percent opposed reducing state services for the poor, and 67 percent opposed increasing the state income tax.
"What's striking is that a very high, almost an overwhelming number think it's a serious problem or a fairly serious problem. There's no disagreement about that," said Laslo Boyd, a partner at Gonzales, "but there's not only no agreement, but no support for any particular solution."
The poll sampled 833 registered Maryland voters in mid-September and has a margin of error of plus or minus 3.5 percentage points.
Eberly said it's not unusual for voters to convey conflicting messages on the issue of government finance.
"Often the public is hard to read when it comes to wanting the government to rein in expenses," said Eberly. "When you ask them about the specifics of how we would do it—should we cut spending for x, y and z, they say no ... that's what falls on the elected officials to decide."
The economy was by far the most important issue to voters. Health care and taxes at 13 percent and 12 percent respectively were the only other issues to break double digits.
Only 1 percent named illegal immigration as the most important issue, and only 3 percent named crime.
Maryland leaders at the forefront of the economic crisis have seen their approval ratings remain strong. Gov. Martin O'Malley's job approval rating rose 3 percentage points to 48 percent in the past year. He defeated Republican National Committee Chairman Michael Steele by 15 percentage points, and former Maryland Gov. Robert Ehrlich by 11 percentage points in hypothetical match-ups, according to the Gonzales poll.
"These times are so very difficult that it's quite honestly hard to focus on the politics," O'Malley told reporters at a press conference on Tuesday when asked about his reelection.
He went on to say his re-election will require a hard fought campaign.
U.S. Sen. Barbara Mikulski, a Democrat, received a 67 percent job approval rating in the poll and 55 percent of voters said they would vote to reelect her if the contest were held that day.
Eberly said he does not anticipate much turnover in Maryland politics in 2010, nor did members of the General Assembly despite the difficult decisions they face in the next year, which will likely include continued budget deficits requiring more state spending cuts.
"You're not going to be able to please everybody," said state Sen. Verna Jones, D-Baltimore City. "As legislators we have been empowered to take all of that into consideration and make the best decisions that we can."
Jones said the economy has not led her to change the way she reaches out to constituents, but it has caused her to rethink fundraising. She said she now plans to hold smaller events and seek donors outside of Maryland.
"The possibility of Democrats losing control or even losing the tremendous advantage they have in the General Assembly, that's simply not in the cards," Eberly said.
Capital News Service contributed to this report.