The divide between state government and its people is wide, and there’s no bridge in sight.
In a recent survey conducted by the Public Affairs Research Council of Alabama, more than two-thirds of those surveyed agreed with the statement, “Government officials in Montgomery do not especially care what people like me think.”
The percentage of people who feel their state officials don’t care what they think has been consistently high over the years and has been ticking up since 2014, according to the report on the PARCA survey. This year, 69 percent of respondents agreed with the statement.
Slightly less than two-thirds of those surveyed, 63 percent, agreed with a related statement, “People like me have no say in what the government in Montgomery does.” The percentage of people who agree with that statement also has been ticking upward in recent years, rising from just 43 percent in 2008.
The report says that people of all races, ages and incomes agree that Montgomery doesn’t care what they think. People in most demographic categories also agree that they have no say over what their state government does, with one exception. Respondents who made more than $100,000 a year were significantly less likely to feel powerless.
PARCA, in collaboration with Samford University, conducted the telephone survey of Alabama residents between Jan. 3 and Jan. 28. The survey, which incorporated landline and cell phone telephone numbers, produced 361 completed interviews, giving the survey a margin of error of plus or minus 5.2 percent. Responses then were weighted by race and gender to match state demographics, according to the report.
The survey also addressed topics such as state budget priorities, the quality of representation in state government, and questions about public education in Alabama.
Respondents were asked to rank the four major areas of state spending. They said their top priority was education, followed by healthcare, public safety and highways. The study has been conducted for the past four years, and the overall priorities have remained unchanged. But there has been a sharp decline in the percentage of people who named education as their top spending priority. That percentage was fairly stable in the previous three years, holding at 48.4 percent last year, but this year the percentage of people who listed education as their top priority dropped to 38.8 percent.
Meanwhile, the percentage of people who listed healthcare as their top priority has increased, from 30.7 percent last year to 37 percent this year. There was a smaller uptick in those who listed public safety as their top priority, 17.6 percent this year compared to 12.6 last year.
Pollsters also asked whether people would be willing to pay more in taxes to avoid spending cuts. More than half of respondents, 57.1 percent, said they would be willing to pay more to support education, and 51.3 percent said they would pay more to support health care. Close to a majority, 49 percent, said they would be willing to pay more for public safety, but only 35.8 percent said they would be willing to pay more for highways.
As for spending, 72 percent of respondents said the state spent too little on education. But about three-fifths said the money was not spent properly. The largest complaint, made by 33.5 percent of people, was that too many administrators were employed by the schools.
“About a third see the schools as spending too much on administration, with the number identifying other reasons dropping off considerably,” the report stated. “Most of the examples of improper spending refer to expenses other than instruction, so one might infer that residents want greater investment in education and for that investment to be efficiently administered, i.e. concentrated on instruction.”
Almost half of people surveyed, 49.7 percent, said they believed Alabama’s public schools did a worse job educating students than most other schools in the nation; 29 percent said Alabama’s schools were about normal; and 12 percent said they thought Alabama schools were among the best in the country.
About 12 percent also said they thought students left Alabama schools well prepared, while 17.1 percent said students were poorly prepared. The largest portion of respondents, 47 percent, said they were somewhat prepared, with 19.5 percent saying they were somewhat unprepared.
The poll also asked about funding for specific items in the schools. All of those responding said they thought money should be increased or remain the same for all of the functions. More than half of respondents said funding should be increased for teacher salaries, classroom supplies and technology, security, increased numbers of teachers, professional development for teachers, technology infrastructure, and music and the arts. Fewer than half of respondents thought money should be increased for textbooks, pre-K, school counselors and school buses.
“Public officials are in a difficult position,” the report concluded. “As Edmund Burke and others have noted, there is often a tension between the preferences of constituents in a district and the collective interest of a state or nation. Officials, seeing their colleagues defeated in primaries from the more extreme wing of their parties, may underestimate the scope they have when working to solve important public policy challenges. Similarly, officials may underestimate their capacity to educate their constituents on what it may take to address the problems confronting the state. Results of PARCA polls indicate many opportunities for officials to demonstrate responsiveness to public concerns and leadership in crafting public policy solutions.”