The idea of giving the state the power to tax investment real property to support public education doesn’t sit well with Gene Kuth of Wahiawa.

That’s why he’s voting “no” on the constitutional amendment ballot question this fall.

“I think we are overtaxed already,” said Kuth, a carpenter by trade. “I don’t think there is enough oversight as far as what the Legislature is doing. They need to better handle their budgets.”

A new Civil Beat Poll suggests a majority of likely voters statewide agree with Kuth. Asked how they would vote on the so-called “ConAm” question, 53 percent said they would oppose it compared to just 35 percent who would vote in favor.

Another 5 percent said they would not vote on it at all. Since ballots left blank or spoiled effectively are counted as “no” votes, it will be a challenge for the ConAm question to obtain the 50 percent majority that is required for passage.

Civil Beat polled the ConAm question in two ways: as an issue question to gauge how voters feel about taxing investment properties to help schools, and as a voting question asking what they will do when they fill out their ballot.

When it came to voting, 53 percent decisively said they would vote against it.

But when thinking about the idea of allowing the state to tax property and use it for schools, the results were much closer and, with a margin of error of 4.4 percent, possibly a tossup: 41 percent said they oppose using property taxes for schools, 37 percent said they support the proposal and 18 percent said they need more information.

Either way, the ConAm question turns off many voters.

“The constitutional amendment doesn’t have majority support, and nearly one in five feel like they need to know more about it,” said Seth Rosenthal, opinion research consultant for the Merriman River Group, which conducted the poll. “When we posed the question as an up-or-down vote, people who feel like they don’t know enough or are not really sure it’s a good idea are probably more likely to vote ‘no’ than ‘yes.’”

Status Quo Preferred

The poll surveyed 961 likely voters Oct. 8-12. The sample consisted of 70 percent landlines and 30 percent cellphones.

Approximately 473 were asked the issue question while 488 were asked the voting question. The margin of error was 4.5 on the issue question, 4.4 percent on the voting question.

Rosenthal said the survey responses suggesting unease with a new tax are not particular surprising.

“Part of the reason is that people in general just have a status quo bias,” he said. “All else being equal, and given the choice between changing something or leaving it the same, it’s a well-known finding in research that people prefer to leave things the same.”

Even the way the survey responses break down into subgroups is not unexpected. Those who identify as conservative or Republican, for example, traditionally oppose taxes. The same goes for voters in higher income brackets.

Hundreds of teachers and supporters rallied at the Capitol in 2016 in support of the Hawaii State Teachers Association’s education bill. The measured died, but new legislation in 2018 led to the ConAm ballot question. Cory Lum/Civil Beat

Barry Wallace, a retired executive with Outrigger Hotels and Resorts, initially responded in support of the ConAm. Reached by telephone Monday at his Honolulu home, he said he was wavering.

“I am trying to understand it better, and I am really uncomfortable with the language opening the door to a whole new tax without clarity as to where it’s going to go,” said Wallace. “Even since speaking with your interviewer, I continue reading about it in the paper and elsewhere, and I still haven’t got a firm opinion on it.”

The wording of the ballot question is in part the subject of a complaint by the counties of Honolulu, Hawaii, Kauai and Maui. On Oct. 4, the Hawaii Supreme Court agreed to hear the lawsuit that argues the question is “misleading and deceptive” for not mentioning the word “tax” (instead, the word “surcharge” is used) and that it is vague in terms of identifying which investment properties could be taxed.

The Hawaii State Teachers Association, the primary backer of the ConAm, has pointed out that the exact language and parameters will be determined by the Legislature next session, should voters approve the ballot question.

Even voters inclined to support more money for education have qualms.

Wallace said he wishes the Legislature, which approved the ballot language in the 2018 session, had been more precise in the wording.

“At the moment, I probably would be inclined to vote against it,” he said.

Like Wallace, Kuth, the Wahiawa carpenter, wants to help education. But he said many taxpayers are still upset about the tax hikes last year to pay for Honolulu rail.

“I believe teachers should get paid more, but there are other ways to find that money — look at all the social programs,” he said. “The Legislature could take it out of their own pockets instead of taking it from people’s pockets.”

Editor’s note: Coming Wednesday, how voters feel about a constitutional convention and issues that might be considered at a ConCon.

Civil Beat Poll October 2018 — Constitutional Amendment:

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