Poll: Residents less worried about crime

Baton Rouge residents this year are less worried about crime, more tolerant of same-sex marriage and supportive of hypothetical taxes to improve infrastructure across the parish, according to the Baton Rouge Area Foundation’s City Stats report, an annual parish poll that measures residents’ sentiments on various local and national issues.

Responding to the poll results, Mayor-President Kip Holden on Monday said he was pleased that Baton Rouge residents appeared open to the idea of being taxed for infrastructure work. He also didn’t rule out another attempt to put a tax package together for voters, despite a string of fairly recent failures in that arena.

“Possibly yes,” Holden said in response to a question about whether his administration would propose another infrastructure tax plan. “Because, between the federal government and the state government, the amount coming from these entities is getting smaller and smaller, and the problems are getting larger and larger. We can’t just sit here and give things lip service; we’ve got to do the work.”

Holden has three times proposed and failed to pass tax increases to pay for a broad array of infrastructure, public safety and economic development projects. The proposals voters were asked to approve would have raised $748 million in 2011, $901 million in 2009 and $989 million in 2008. The first two plans were rejected by voters, and the last one was killed by the Metro Council, so voters never weighed in.

Participants were asked if they would “be in favor of allowing individual parishes the right to tax gasoline,” and 72 percent said no. However, when a majority of the respondents were asked a more detailed question about a hypothetical gas tax for parish road and infrastructure improvements, a majority said they would pony up more at the pump. Forty-two percent said they would pay an additional 5 cents, 14 percent agreed to pay 10 cents, and 5 percent said they would pay an additional quarter in gas money.

Holden said Baton Rouge was 60 years behind on infrastructure needs when he took office in 2005, and many of Baton Rouge’s woes, such as deteriorating bridges and drainage problems, have only worsened due to lack of funds.

“I thank God that people understand that in order to make the next step on infrastructure, that you are going to have to pay dollars to make those happen,” Holden said.

In Louisiana, local governments don’t have the authority to impose their own gas taxes. Holden’s previous tax plans involved a combination of property and sales tax increases.

BRAF spokesman Mukul Verma said the poll suggested a gas tax because states like Florida and Nevada permit local fuel taxes.

The poll also showed that Baton Rouge residents appear less fearful of crime than in previous years, with 63 percent saying they would feel safe walking alone in their neighborhood at night. In 2012, 62 percent of participants said they were worried they would be a crime victim in the coming year, but that percentage dropped 14 points over the past two years, with only 48 percent anxious about possible victimization in the coming year.

Holden credited the improvement to the Baton Rouge Area Violence Elimination program, which was launched in 2012 and involves a cooperation between social service programs, law enforcement and faith-based organizations aimed at reducing gang-related youth violence.

“When we put the BRAVE program together, it was aimed at achieving exactly what we’re seeing in the stats now,” Holden said. Homicides in 2013 were about 20 percent less than 2012.

The poll also showed Baton Rouge residents continue to warm to expanded rights for lesbian, gay, bisexual and transgender people. For the first time since the question was asked four years ago, a majority of the participants said they supported same-sex marriage. This year, 54 percent of respondents favored same-sex marriage, compared with 47 percent last year. The poll also found that 62 percent support a proposed ordinance to prohibit discrimination in housing and employment based on a person’s sexual orientation.

The Metro Council was expected to vote on the ordinance last week, but after hours of emotional discussion, the clock ran out and the vote was kicked to the Aug. 13 meeting. A straw poll of council members suggests they likely will vote against the measure.

Bruce Parker, coalition manager for Equality Louisiana, said he thinks people are generally more open to LGBT rights than their elected officials. “The last places we are still having these fights are in the state legislature and city council chambers,” he said. “I am confident that elected officials will see their way to doing the right thing and voting for equality.”

Verma noted that every year the BRAF poll shows that the people of Baton Rouge “are less conservative than we think” and moving more toward the middle politically.

“At the same time, people don’t believe politicians are listening to them,” he said, referencing the poll question that showed 55 percent of respondents thought they had either no or little influence over their city-parish government leaders.

Respondents were split on the issue of whether charter schools provide better education than public schools. But with 41 percent, the plurality of participants said they thought charter schools were better, 33 percent disagreed and 26 percent said they didn’t know.

“The issue of whether charter schools are better than public schools is clouded by the fact that charter schools are able to select their students and, except for a few cases, exclude those with disabilities,” said Lesle Defley, a spokeswoman for One Community, One School District, a group that has been vocal in its criticism of charter schools.

But Defley said she was encouraged by the poll results showing that 68 percent would support a property tax to pay for early childhood education for all children in the parish.

Also included in the poll for the first time was a question about whether residents supported the legalization of marijuana, with 65 percent of respondents saying they support legalizing pot for medicinal purposes but 55 percent are against legalizing possession for recreational use.

Woody Jenkins, chairman of the parish Republican Party and a longtime conservative activist, was dismissive of the poll, as the survey was not limited to “registered voters” or “likely voters,” which would give a better idea of how issues would do at the polls. He said while Baton Rouge residents in general may be more moderate, he thinks Baton Rouge voters lean more conservative.

“The person who actually votes is who impacts things in the political world,” he said.

The 2014 report by the LSU Public Policy Research Lab was conducted in April and May, including 522 responses from 362 landlines and 160 cellphones. The poll results were weighted to represent the demographics of the parish. The margin of error is plus or minus 4.3 percent.

BRAF has commissioned the poll every year since 2009 to serve as a blueprint for elected and civic leaders and a scorecard of parish progress.

Follow Rebekah Allen on Twitter, @rebekahallen. For more coverage of city-parish government, follow the City Hall Buzz blog at http://blogs.theadvocate.com/cityhallbuzz.