Government employees

Reason-Rupe Poll: Walker Leads Barrett 50-42, Obama Leads Romney 46-36

Wisconsin voters support last year's reforms and support additional changes to the way government employees' retirement and health benefits are paid for

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Gov. Scott Walker leads Milwaukee Mayor Tom Barrett 50-42 among those likely to vote in Wisconsin's June 5 recall election, according to a new Reason-Rupe poll of 708 Wisconsin adults on cell phones and landlines. 

In the presidential race, 49 percent of all adults surveyed approve of the job President Obama is doing and 45 percent disapprove. President Obama leads Mitt Romney 46-36 in Wisconsin, with 6 percent selecting the Libertarian Party's Gary Johnson. Obama's margin over Romney shrinks to 45-41 among those likely to vote in June's recall election, with Johnson taking what would be a crucial 5 percent of the vote.

The Reason-Rupe poll finds voters overwhelmingly support many of the key changes Gov. Walker and the legislature implemented on public sector pensions and health care last year. Reason-Rupe finds 72 percent favor the change requiring public sector workers to increase their pension contributions from less than 1 percent to 6 percent of their salaries. And 71 percent favor making government employees pay 12 percent of their own health care premiums instead of the previous 6 percent. 

Taxpayers actually wish state lawmakers had cast an even larger net with their reforms. Police and firefighters were exempted from the pension and health care adjustments but 57 percent of taxpayers say they should not have been. 

The public supports asking government workers to pick up more of the tab for their own retirement benefits, as 65 percent say public sector workers receive better pension and health care benefits than private sector workers. 22 percent say benefit levels are about the same, and just 7 percent believe private sector retirement benefits are better than those in the public sector.

When asked what state and local officials should do if pensions and health benefits are underfunded, 74 percent favor requiring government employees to pay more for their own health care and retirement benefits. In sharp contrast, 75 percent oppose cutting funding for programs like education and 74 percent oppose raising taxes to help fund government worker benefits.

To deal with rising retirement costs, 69 percent favor shifting future state employees, those who haven't been hired or promised pensions yet, to 401(k)-style retirement plans instead of the current defined-benefit plans.

If state and local governments have to reduce spending, voters were asked what should be cut first: 38 percent say public employee pension benefits, 29 percent believe prison and court cuts should be made first, 17 percent would reduce funding for roads and infrastructure, 5 percent chose education, and 4 percent would target health care spending.

Government employee unions are viewed favorably by 35 percent of those surveyed and unfavorably by 31 percent. Voters remain split on limiting the collective bargaining power of public sector unions, with 47 percent in favor of, and 46 percent opposed to, restricting unions' ability to negotiate things like health care and pension benefits.

The Reason-Rupe poll finds significant differences in attitudes between public and private sector employees.  For example, 65 percent of government employees have a favorable view of public employee unions and just 11 percent view unions unfavorably. In contrast, only 27 percent of private sector employees have favorable opinions of public employee unions, while 37 percent view them unfavorably.

And while 72 percent of all respondents favor the law requiring public sector workers to increase their pension contributions, only 48 percent of government employees favor the change, while 80 percent of private sector employees favor it.

The complete Reason-Rupe survey is online here.

This Reason-Rupe poll, conducted May 14-18, 2012 by ORC International, surveyed a random sample of 708 Wisconsin adults on cell phones and landlines. The results have a margin of error of plus or minus 3.7 percentage points. The poll includes 609 likely voters who are registered and said they are certain or likely to vote in the June 5 recall election. The margin of error for likely voters is plus or minus 4 percentage points.

This is the latest in a series of Reason-Rupe public opinion surveys dedicated to exploring what Americans really think about government and major issues.  This Reason Foundation project is made possible thanks to the generous support of the Arthur N. Rupe Foundation.

Emily Ekins is the director of polling for Reason Foundation where she leads the Reason-Rupe public opinion research project, launched in 2011. Follow her on Twitter @emilyekins.

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