VTDigger/Castleton poll: 65 percent of voters want revamp of property tax system

Ed Poll
The Castleton Polling Institute conducted a poll for VTDigger on education issues. Three questions were asked: Whether respondents voted to reject or approve their local school budgets; whether registered voters supported or opposed the idea of consolidating school districts; and whether registered voters believe the property tax system should be changed or stay the same.

The poll shows that 65 percent of voters want the Legislature to revamp the statewide property tax system. Forty-seven percent of voters support and 32 percent oppose school district consolidation. Forty percent of registered voters in the survey did not cast ballots for school budgets on Town Meeting Day.

The Vermont Legislature is in the middle of making decisions about how to deal with a large increase in property tax rates at a time when schools, especially those in small, rural districts, have seen a 20 percent decline in student population over a 15-year period.

The statewide property tax went up 5 cents in 2014 and will go up 4 cents this year and 7 cents next year for residential property owners, according to figures from the Joint Fiscal Office. Non-residential property taxpayers will see a 21-cent increase over that same three-year period.

On Town Meeting Day, voters rejected budgets in 35 school districts.

Lawmakers are trying to find ways — in the waning days of the session — to improve educational quality and reduce costs over the long term.

To that end, the Vermont House has passed a property tax bill that would phase out $7.4 million in small school grants starting in 2019 and tie the excess spending threshold to inflation. The legislation also uses one-time money to reduce the residential property tax rate. And it sets the stage for changes to the property tax formula in the next legislative biennium, beginning in 2015.

The Vermont House of Representatives is considering a bill, H.883, that would create a framework for consolidating school boards and districts. The proposal envisions the consolidation of 282 school districts to 45-55 districts statewide.

In the poll, 47 percent of registered voters support a plan to consolidate districts. Support for consolidation increases with respondents’ levels of education, and men are more likely than women to support consolidation. Regionally, Chittenden County is far more likely than other regions to support consolidation; in the northern counties, registered voters are evenly split.

Overall, 22 percent of our sample said they voted to reject their local school budget. While those who support consolidation were slightly more likely to have reported voting to reject their local school budget than were those who oppose consolidation — 27 percent contrasted with 19 percent — the difference is not statistically significant. However, those who believe that the statewide formula for property taxes needs to be revised (65 percent) were significantly more likely to reject their local school budget than were the 13 percent who believe that the current system of property tax is fine (30 percent compared to 12 percent).

Support for revising the property tax formula crosses party and regional lines as well as education, age and gender. Of those who do not own their home (13 percent of our sample), however, only 33 percent say that the formula needs to be revised, while 53 percent have no opinion on the matter.

Castleton Polling Institutes methodology

This report is based on data from 682 interviews drawn from a random sample of registered voters in Vermont. Interviews were conducted by phone by from March 31 to April 7, 2014. Thirteen percent of interviews were conducted with registered voters on cellphones.

For a sample of this size, the margin of error at the 95 percent confidence level is +/-4 percent, although the margin of error is larger for questions involving subsamples of respondents. Although sampling error is only one source of potential survey error, precautions have been taken to minimize other sources of error for this poll.

The data reported are weighted based on estimations of the population of Vermont registered voters to account for differential in response rates among age groups.

Poll results

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Anne Galloway

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  • Bruce Post

    I am highly skeptical of this statement: “Forty percent of registered voters did not cast ballots for school budgets on Town Meeting Day.” That would mean that turnout on Town Meeting Day would have been 60 percent, an unusually — and unbelievably — high turnout.

    Shouldn’t that be “Forty percent of the registered voters surveyed did not cast ballots for school budgets on Town Meeting Day”?

    Using turnout figures from 2009 Town Meeting Day, towns with floor votes only had a turnout of 16.3%; towns with both floor votes and Australian ballot had a turnout of 22.9%; and those municipalities voting only by Australian ballot has an average turnout of 26.2% These figures came from the Secretary of State’s previous website. I have trouble tracking down the latest numbers on average turnout on his new site.

    Of course, school budget voting procedures vary by school district. I know that in Essex, where I live and also Vermont’s second largest municipality, turnout was abysmally low.

    Perhaps I am misreading and misunderstanding this poll. It won’t be the first time I have been confused — of the last time either. Yet, if the pollster is estimating a 60% turnout, I question the reliability of this poll.

    Can you straighten me out, please. Thanks.

    • Tom Brown

      Good catch, Bruce. Yes it should be 40 percent of those surveyed said they did not vote on their school budgets. Tom Brown, VTDigger Assignment Editor

      • Moshe Braner

        So those surveyed were somehow not representative at all of the typical registered voters? How and why? Or were many of them too embarrased to admit that they didn’t bother to vote? What other questions did they give made-up answers to?

        The question “should the property tax system should be changed or stay the same” is rather useless, since it does not state what kind of change. Some want a return to a straight property tax. Some want a straight income tax. Both of those opposing views don’t think the current system is good.

      • Ken McPherson

        ‘Tom, are you with Castleton? Is the 40% number from raw survey data or from the weighted analysis? In either case, the discrepancy between the survey results (60% of registered voters voted on the ballot) and the more believable real world voting results (probably 25% plus or minus voted) suggests that the survey results are biased, with “registered voters who voted” being significantly over-represented in the sample and, possibly, in the reported results. This over-representation is predictable – those registered voters who chose to express their feelings by voting are most likely also more likely to express their feelings by participating in a telephone survey. Could you clarify if this bias was corrected in analyzing the data, and could you explain how the correction was accomplished?

        • Tom Brown

          Ken, I am with VTDigger. We have reached out to the conductor of the poll to try to answer your question. In the meantime, the methodology is described generally in the story we posted. Thanks for the question, Tom

          • Moshe Braner

            The methodology section does not say how many people were reached but turned down the offer of an interview. If that number was a large percentage of those reached, perhaps larger than the number interviewed, that could explain the bias. And, if that bias is so large, it cannot be fully corrected.

            I would love to actually know how many people complain about their school taxes but do not bother to vote.

            In the town of Essex, where both Bruce Post and I live (the second largest in the state), the school budget vote is in April, long after Town Meeting Day. I believe that separation depresses turnout, and should be changed. I also wonder if this research poll included towns that vote on their school budget at such a later date? The question wording quoted above mentioned Town Meeting Day.

  • Larry Hopkins

    In my town, which has one of the lowest rates in the state, everyone complains about the school tax rate, yet only about 33% of the voters voted ( 180 of 528 ) and the budget only passed 98-82.
    This was the first and only time we ever were over the base tax adjusted by CLA. This to me attests to the fact many voters voted no most likely because they do not understand the system. Maybe is was the 18% increase?

  • Larry Hopkins

    Sorry, forgot to add that the calculated tax CAN NOT be lowered by spending under the base cost per pupil.

    • Larry Hopkins

      Two posts before this seem to have been deleted, so my post of 11:38 AM is moot.
      Someone asked about taxes and now that is gone?

  • John McClaughry

    The poll question was “do you think the statewide formula for property taxes is fine, or needs to be revised?” This borders on being an idiot question. 99% of the respondents can not offer a coherent explanation of any “statewide formula for property taxes”. That’s like asking if the US should extend basic human rights to the Islets of Langerhans.
    People know what they’re paying in property taxes (once a year), and most want relief, but most have no conception of where the $1.5 B in education money comes from , where it goes, and what it produces. They will cheerfully vote for maximum benefit at minimum cost.
    I can’t believe a polling institution would go out with such an unrevealing question.

  • Ed Fisher

    Yeaa ! One small sign that what I’ve been preaching for twenty years plus is coming around ! People are realizing finally , enough is enough , No! more escalated and mushrooming school budgets ! The idiocy that surrounds the municipal budgeting process has come to a head .

  • Wayne Senville

    Did the poll include the question: “Do you understand how the current education funding formula works?”

    To me, one of the greatest flaws in the legislation is that it is virtually impossible for anyone to understand how the funding formula works. One basic rule in writing laws is that they should be understandable.

    In Burlington, where I live, I listened time after time to explanations of how the formula works and why our proposed school tax increase of 10% was really just a modest increase of 3%, and that for many voters it didn’t really represent any increase. The more I listened the more confused I got!

    There are true merits in having a law that can be readily explained and understood.

    *As an alternative to asking survey respondents whether they understand how the formula works (some may be embarrassed to say they don’t), how about asking them to write a short explanation of how the funding formula works. The results should be fascinating to read.