AUGUSTA — A statewide poll released Wednesday suggests Maine residents believe their state’s economy is moving in the right direction.
Conducted by Strategic Marketing Services of Portland, the survey interviewed 450 Mainers between Jan. 16 and Jan. 20. The statistical margin of error was plus or minus 4.6 percent.
Not surprisingly, the level of confidence in Maine’s economic future rose proportionately from north to south. Overall, 68 percent of those questioned believed the economy was tracking well, while 23 percent believed it wasn’t and 9 percent didn’t know. When broken down by region, 79 percent of those living in southern Maine felt the economy was moving in the right direction, compared with 60 percent in northern and Down East Maine.
“Obviously the unemployment levels are higher in certain pockets in northern counties,” said Patrick Murphy of SMS. “When you get people in southern Maine going 79 percent and 60 percent in the north it does show there’s a dichotomy there.”
Those in northern Maine who thought the economy was moving in the wrong direction outnumbered those in southern Maine by about 2 to 1. Further evidence, Murphy said, of the north-south split.
Fifty-eight percent of those sampled said an economic recession within the next 12 months is “not very likely” and 61 percent expected their household incomes to remain about the same. Only 13 percent thought economic life on the home front was going to deteriorate. Twenty-five percent thought their situation would improve, while one percent weren’t sure or didn’t know.
In addressing a state budget surplus that could exceed $200 million, 27 percent of those polled think the state’s top priority should be reducing taxes, while another 27 percent said the money should be spent on education. Thirteen percent recommended spending the surplus on social programs, while 8 percent wanted to beef up the state’s Rainy Day Fund. Seven percent of those polled wanted to donate the surplus as relief to victims of Ice Storm ’98 and seven percent each wanted lawmakers to use the money to pay off state debt or fix up roads and bridges.
If some or all of the surplus was used to reduce taxes in Maine, 39 percent of those polled would like to see the state property tax reduced, 27 percent would like to reduce the sales tax and 25 percent wanted the income tax cut. Five percent said they wanted the snack tax reduced or eliminated and 3 percent were unsure. Among those favoring a sales tax cut, 48 percent wanted the rate to drop 1 percent rather than the half-percent figure suggested by Gov. Angus S. King.
In a related survey, members of the Maine Education Association said Wednesday that a poll conducted by Kiley & Co. of Boston between Dec. 5 and Dec. 8, 1997, corroborated SMS’ findings. Of 501 Maine residents sampled in that survey, 53 percent wanted the Maine Legislature to use its surplus to reduce taxes while 41 percent wanted to achieve that goal by reducing local property taxes. Only 27 percent wanted to reduce the state income tax and an even smaller 20 percent wanted to reduce the sales tax. The Kiley & Co. poll contained a 4.5 percent margin of error.
One of the issues that raised Murphy’s eyebrows was the growing opposition to the construction of an east-west highway. Sixty-eight percent of those surveyed would not support a 3-cent-per-gallon gas tax increase to help fund the $1 billion highway linking Calais to Gilead. Murphy said those with higher levels of education supported the project, while those who completed high school or less did not. Men also favored the plan more than women did.