The latest Reason-Rupe poll of 708 Wisconsin adults on landline and cell phones found 65 percent of Wisconsin residents believe government workers receive better retirement benefits that those with similar jobs in the private sector. Twenty-two percent think benefits are the same and 7 percent think public sector retirement benefits are worse than in the private sector.
Wisconsin results are substantially higher than findings from a national Reason-Rupe poll conducted in March 2011, which found that 50 percent of Americans thought "public sector employees" have "better benefits" than "those with similar jobs in the private sector."
Despite the widespread perception that public employees receive better retirement benefits, this does not necessarily translate into support for cutting these benefits. Instead, a slight plurality (49 percent) opposes doing so, and 46 percent support reducing public employee benefits. At the same time, the public also supports reforms that would reduce costs of public employee retirement benefits: 74 percent favor increased public employee contributions toward benefits, 69 percent favor transitioning pensions to 401(k)-style accounts, and 79 percent favor increasing the retirement benefit eligibility age to at least 60.
Perception of public employee benefits appears to highly correlate with the issues surrounding the June 5th Wisconsin Governor recall election. Eight-eight percent of those who plan to vote for Governor Scott Walker think public employees receive better benefits, compared to 46 percent among Tom Barrett voters. Likewise, 81 percent among those with unfavorable opinions of public unions think public workers receive better benefits compared to 48 percent among those with favorable opinions of public unions.
However, majorities of both public (59 percent) and private (75 percent) sector workers agree public workers receive better retirement benefits. Similarly majorities across partisan groups also agree, including 82 percent of Republicans, 65 percent of Independents, and 51 percent of Democrats.
There is a general consensus in Wisconsin that public sector workers enjoy better retirement benefits that those with similar jobs in the private sector. This does not necessarily mean they favor cutting those benefits (some may think the private sector should improve its retirement benefits). Nevertheless, this perception of compensation inequality between public and private sectors may drive support for reforms that reduce the cost of government workers' retirement benefits.
ORC International conducted fieldwork for the poll, May 14th-18th 2012 of both mobile and landline phones, 708 Wisconsin adults, margin of error +/- 3.7%. Likely Wisconsin voters (609, MOE +/-4%) include registered respondents who said they are absolutely certain to vote or very likely to vote in the June 5th recall election for governor.
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.