Diverse group backs toll credit, poll shows

By Raphael Lewis, Globe Staff, 11/1/2000

t first blush, ballot Question 6 appears to target a specific voting bloc: middle-class commuters who take the Massachusetts Turnpike or the Tobin Bridge to work.

But on closer inspection, the ballot referendum offering a state tax rebate for tolls and auto excise taxes has found a diverse group of supporters - some of them unlikely - who have made its passage possible, a poll released yesterday shows.

The poll, conducted by the University of Massachusetts from Oct. 25 to 29, found that 42 percent of 401 registered voters who participated in the survey supported the measure, 30 percent opposed it, and 28 percent were undecided. The results were similar to a Globe/WBZ-TV survey, conducted Oct. 24 to 26, which found that 43 percent of 400 likely voters surveyed supported the tax rebate, while 32 percent opposed it, and 25 percent were unsure or refused to answer. Both polls had a 5 percent margin of error.

The large and growing body of undecided voters could spell trouble for Question 6, which has proved less popular with voters than Governor Paul Cellucci's income tax proposal, Question 4.

But if the Cellucci measure is more popular, it relies on pockets of overwhelming support, the UMass poll says. That contrasts greatly with Question 6, which finds nearly equal support among upper-middle class and working class respondents, part-time and full-time workers, senior citizens and young adults.

The measure also appears popular in places few would have predicted. For example, 34 percent of those who don't use cars - a group that receives no benefit from Question 6 - support the measure, the poll shows. Only 16 percent opposed it.

Another unlikely pocket of support is the South Shore. According to the poll, more than 48 percent of those who said they live on the South Shore support Question 6, even though most encounter no tolls on their commutes. What's more, the South Shore registered the highest percentage of support for Question 6 of any region in Massachusetts.

Income, too, was no basis of prediction for the referendum, which would give $3.76 billion back to motorists in its first five years, if successful. Those making $20,000 to $75,000 annually were as likely to support Question 6 as those making more than $75,000, with 41 percent of each group supporting Question 6. That result was counter-intuitive, given that lower-middle-class voters would reap more money from Question 6 as a percentage of their income than their wealthier neighbors - since a $1 toll is the same for rich and poor alike.

''There's no single demographic group that's running away with this issue,'' said Robert S. Bucci, research director for UMass Poll.

The political ground could shift dramatically in the final days before the Nov. 7 election, he said.

In the past week, opponents have begun airing television advertisements that decry Question 6, exposing the measure to its first televised criticism. The effect of the ad blitz - unanswered by supporters of the referendum - has been a higher level of voter confusion, Bucci said.

''People are being barraged,'' Bucci said. ''They're beginning to see the complexity of the issues and they don't know where they stand.''

Jim St. George, spokesman for the Campaign for Massachusetts' Future, which is orchestrating the opposition campaign, sees the ultimate demise of Question 6 in the burgeoning ranks of undecided voters. ''They typically vote `no,''' St. George said.

Harold Hubschman, spokesman for the Free the Pike coalition that got Question 6 onto the ballot, says he is inclined to view the new advertisements as a positive development for his referendum campaign.

''I think it's great we're being associated with Question 4,'' Hubschman said. ''[Voters] may not like the governor, but they sure as hell like his tax cut.''

Bucci said that with Vice President Al Gore and Senator Edward M. Kennedy sure to win in Massachusetts on Election Day, undecided voters will have more than enough time over the next week to make a decision about Question 6 and the other seven proposals.

''People are beginning to look at this stuff earnestly,'' he said. ''What else do they have to talk about?''