Alabamians’ Preferences for State Budget Allocations:  1980 and 2000

Alabamians’ Preferences for State Budget Allocations:  1980 and 2000

  • August 7th, 2019

Alabamians’ Preferences for State Budget Allocations:  1980 and 2000

Alabamians’ highest priority for the use of state tax dollars is providing support for elementary and secondary schools, according to a recent study conducted by UA’s Capstone Poll.  Support for using tax dollars to fund K-12 education has increased by 23 percent since results of a similar study were published in 1980.  Also, support for public schools replaced support for benefits for older people as the most popular use of state funds in the twenty-year period.  Clearly, calls for better funding of K-12 public education have had a major impact on the attitudes of Alabama’s citizens since 1980.

Citizens also give significantly higher priority to funding benefits for poor people and to funding environmental protection efforts than they did two decades ago.  The popularity of benefits for poor people rose 16 percent during the twenty-year period, which was marked in the last five years by major welfare reform that removed thousands of Alabamians from the welfare rolls.  Since a separate question found that 51.2 percent of respondents to the recent survey also believe there are fewer undeserving people on welfare than there were ten years ago, the higher priority given to benefits for poor people may result from a perception that the people remaining on welfare are those who truly need and deserve help.

There was a 13 percent increase in support for environmental protection.  According to UA professor and specialist in environmental studies, Ed Passerini, greater support for environmental protection may be tied, at least in part, to the passage of the Forever Wild Act and significant purchases of land for conservation throughout Alabama.  State government functions that lost priority during the last 20 years were the judicial system, including prisons (down 16 percent), support for mental health centers and mental hospitals (down 16 percent) and support for highways and roads (down 13 percent).

Results from the recent study do not seem to be directly attributable to personal self-interest.  Support for elementary and secondary schools ranked first, but only 33 percent of respondents had school-aged children attending school in Alabama.  Support for programs for older people ranked second; yet only 21 percent of those responding had someone sixty-five years old or older in their household.  Benefits for poor people ranked third, but fewer than 18.2 percent of the persons who responded had ever received either food stamps or welfare benefits.

Support for K-12 education outranked support for colleges and universities in both the 1980 and 2000 studies.  Similarly, public support for K-12 education has grown compared with support for higher education in the twenty-year period.  Citizens thought it appropriate to allocate 55 percent of the total education budget to elementary and secondary schools in 1980 and 60 percent of the education budget to K-12 in 2000.

Comparison of the 1980 and 2000 studies shows remarkable consistency with a few noteworthy changes in Alabamians’ preferences for how their tax dollars should be distributed.  The six highest rated programs in 1980 were also the six highest rated programs in 2000.  Among these, elementary and secondary schools, benefits for poor people, and support for colleges and universities received higher priority in 2000.  Highways and roads, mental health centers and mental hospitals, and benefits for older people, received lower priority in 2000 than they did in 1980.

Results of the recent study are from a telephone survey of a probability sample of 467 adult Alabamians completed in the late summer of 2000.  Respondents were asked how they would allocate a hypothetical $100 of Alabama tax funds among ten different programs/services that the state currently funds.  They were told they could allocate zero dollars or as much as the full $100 to any program or service.  They were also told that they could divide the $100 among the ten programs in any way that they thought appropriate.  The accompanying table shows the average amount allocated to each program, its rank among the ten programs presented for both the current study and for the one conducted 20 years ago, and the percentage change in the dollar amounts allocated.

The 2000 study is a partial replication of a study published by Alabama Business in 1980.  The earlier study, a mailed survey of 1,015 Alabamians, also asked respondents to allocate a hypothetical $100 of tax funds among state programs and services.

The budget allocation methodology used in the two studies has several limitations, which should be considered as results are interpreted.  First, the ten program areas presented to respondents do not represent all current or potential uses of state revenues.  Public health, for example, is omitted.  Had it or another use of state dollars been included, a different set of budget priorities might have emerged.  Second, this approach assumes a “fixed pot” of state dollars.  Since some of Alabama’s programs are supported by special earmarked taxes, in the real world these ten programs do not all directly compete against each other in the annual budget process.  Finally, it is unlikely that respondents had accurate knowledge of the relative costs of state-supported programs and services.  The results are best viewed as indicative of priorities rather than as well-informed judgments about exactly how state dollars should be allocated.

Lucinda Lee Roff, David L. Klemmack, Debra M. McCallum, Michael B. Conaway