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Sounding Out Washington Voters Want A Balanced Budget More Than A Tax Cut, Poll Shows

Washington state voters would rather the federal government balance its budget than give them a tax cut.

In fact, they’d rather have Congress and President Clinton figure out a way to balance the budget than resolve other key issues facing their government, such as Medicare, land policy, gun control or the Endangered Species Act.

That’s the clear message of a new scientific survey of Washington voters conducted for The Spokesman-Review and KHQ-TV.

In a far-ranging survey about voters’ attitudes, a majority of the 814 voters contacted give the federal government a passing grade for the work it does.

A majority also say they are doing as well or better as four years ago, the last time the nation chose a president. They’re split on whether they’ve had to work harder or about the same over that period to afford the things their family needs. Hardly anyone thinks he or she is working less.

Voters also are split on whether their leaders in the other Washington care about what’s happening to them. But a plurality say their leaders do care.

The series of questions on key issues facing the nation shows voters almost united on balancing the federal budget. Nine out of 10 said that was very important or somewhat important in the survey conducted Feb. 3-5 by Political/Media Research, Inc.

The responses show a pitfall for Clinton and his potential rivals, and for Democrats and Republicans who will seek votes in the state and Eastern Washington’s 5th Congressional District in the coming months.

A plan to balance the budget is key for all candidates hoping to hold the federal purse strings.

Voters are clearly more concerned about the nation’s red ink than getting rebate in the mail, said Del Ali, an analyst for the polling firm.

“We’re finding this in many states,” he said.

There may be a message in the poll results for congressional Republicans as they joust with Clinton in the budget battle. No one should sacrifice the balanced budget on the altar of a tax cut, Ali said.

“This is where the freshman Republicans (in Congress) have to be careful,” he suggested. “The tax cut is not the single most important issue.”

Among Eastern Washington voters, whom the firm polled in a separate survey, the tax cut was rated important by an even smaller majority - 53 percent.

Eight out of 10 voters contacted in each survey said it was important for the federal government to help preserve or increase good-paying jobs.

One-fourth of Eastern Washington voters said the economy is the most important issue in picking a president, and one in five said it was the top issue in their vote for Congress.

Although the number of jobs is increasing in the state and unemployment is low compared to elsewhere in the nation, voters may have a perception that the economy is in decline, said John Mitchell, an economist for U.S. Bank.

The state also is seeing a decline in some traditional jobs - in the forests, mills and factories - and an increase in “service sector” jobs.

“There’s a perception that service sector jobs are all low paying. That’s not the case,” Mitchell said. Doctors, dentists, lawyers and bankers are all part of the service economy, he said.

But in politics, where perception is reality, the poll clearly demonstrates that candidates must address jobs.

“That’s a huge issue for the upcoming campaign. We’re starting to see it in other states as well,” Ali said.

Some issues involving the environment and land use are probably more important to Washington voters than to voters in other regions, he said.

Just over 60 percent of voters surveyed say it is important for candidates for national office to change the way the government manages federal lands. Environmentalists and businesses have long suggested that, although they propose radically different changes.

The survey shows far greater support among voters for more restrictions. More than half - 56 percent - of those saying changes in federal land policy are important want more restrictions on timber harvests and higher fees for grazing of livestock on federal lands. Twenty-nine percent said the government should open up more lands to harvest and grazing.

Just over half of voters surveyed said it was important for candidates to support changes in the Endangered Species Act.

The 1973 landmark law protects everything from the bald eagle to the snail darter from extinction - even if that sidetracks developments or forces industries to make expensive changes in their practices.

Several proposals before Congress would make major changes in the act, usually by considering the economic or “human” costs of classifying a plant or animal as endangered or threatened.

But half the voters who believe changes to the act are important say it should be strengthened to offer greater protection to animals. Only about a third said it should be relaxed to allow greater flexibility for businesses and communities.

In the separate Eastern Washington survey, voters who want changes in the law were more evenly split, but a plurality still said they wanted more protections, not fewer.

Any candidate who was seen as “totally pro-development” could be in trouble, Ali predicted.

Three voters out of five in both surveys said it was important for candidates to support changes to federal gun control laws. The federal government currently requires a waiting period for persons buying a handgun. It also restricts the manufacture and sale of certain types of semiautomatic weapons, sometimes called assault weapons.

Voters who view guns as an important campaign issue were far more likely to call for more restrictions, not less. Even in Eastern Washington, the number of people saying gun controls should be strengthened was more than twice the number saying they should be relaxed or repealed.

Those numbers parallel surveys in the 1994 election, in which then-Speaker Tom Foley was the target of National Rifle Association ads for supporting the assault weapons ban.

“People are not interpreting (federal gun laws) as an attack on the Second Amendment or abolishing gun rights,” Ali said.

If House Speaker Newt Gingrich makes good on a promise to the NRA to repeal the assault weapon ban, Democrats could capitalize on it in the fall, he predicted.

Other questions in the survey suggest Washington voters aren’t as cynical about their government as some have suggested.

Asked to grade the their federal government for “doing the right thing,” 58 percent gave the leaders a passing grade. There were, however, eight times as many F’s as A’s.

Forty percent gave their government a C, noted Ali, which should be scant comfort for politicians.

“The anti-government mania may be overhyped,” he said. “But when kids come home with C’s, parents aren’t happy. Do you want the doctor who does surgery on you to be a C student?”

, DataTimes ILLUSTRATION: 2 Graphics: 1. A look at the national issues 2. Issues of the environment

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