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Poll: Increase Florida's cigarette tax, preserve Bright Futures

TALLAHASSEE — Florida residents say it's time to tax smokers, gays should be allowed to adopt children, and the state's Bright Futures college scholarship program shouldn't be sacrificed for budget-cutting, respondents to a new poll said.

Floridians support a $1 increase to the state's 34-cents-a-pack tax on cigarettes by a whopping 72 to 17 percent, according to the independent Quinnipiac University poll of Florida voters conducted Jan. 14-17.

The survey also found that most Floridians — 55 to 39 percent — want Legislators to change the law that bans homosexuals from adopting children. Opinions on the issue break along party lines: Fifty-two percent of Republicans support the ban, as do 58 percent of white evangelical Christians. Sixty-one percent of Democrats oppose the ban, along with 60 percent of independent voters.

Gay marriage, an issue that Florida voters soundly rejected during the November election, is still not popular. Just 27 percent favor gay marriage, while 35 percent of those surveyed favor civil unions but not marriage, and 31 percent say there should be no legal recognition of gay unions.

The proposed cigarette tax hike has been put on the table for the March legislative session by several lawmakers who want it to offset cuts to health care programs. According to the Quinnipiac poll, most respondents support the idea, with smokers the only group opposed to the increase, 64 to 34 percent. Republicans, Democrats and independents are nearly in synch on the question and when voters are told the money would go for public health programs, support rises slightly from 72 to 77 percent.

"Voters generally are opposed to raising taxes, even in order to balance the budget, but they seem to make an exception for cigarette taxes," said Peter A. Brown, assistant director of the Quinnipiac University Polling Institute. "Given the public support, even normally antitax lawmakers might see this as a politically acceptable notion to the voting public."

The pollsters also took the pulse of Florida residents on the Bright Futures program, which is funded through the state's lottery. Although no legislators have proposed cutting the program, the governor and legislative leaders have said the scholarships will not cover a proposed 15 percent tuition increase. In the poll, 78 percent of Democrats oppose cutting the program, along with 69 percent of Republicans, and 71 percent of independents.

The scholarship program has grown dramatically in recent years with many lawmakers saying it has emerged as the state's largest middle-class entitlement program. It pays up to 100 percent of tuition and fees at any public university in Florida for students who qualify based on their high school grades and test scores.

But Brown said leaders need to tread carefully when considering how to change the program. "There may be a lot of opinion leaders talking about the need to rein in Bright Futures because of its cost in these times of tight budgets, but it is hard to imagine a less popular idea for cuts with the voting public," he said.

Those surveyed oppose, by 54 to 32 percent, trying to save money by raising test and grade standards so fewer students receive the scholarships. By a smaller spread of 50 to 42 percent, voters oppose limiting the scholarships to students whose family income is below a certain level.

The Quinnipiac University's poll was of 1,370 Floridians and has an error rate of plus or minus 2.7 percentage points.

Poll: Increase Florida's cigarette tax, preserve Bright Futures 01/22/09 [Last modified: Thursday, January 22, 2009 6:58pm]
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