"It tells me that 20 percent like toll roads, but 80 percent don't like them."
Forty-one percent of Texas voters chose highway funding in a poll asking what they would cut to deal with a projected state budget shortfall as high as $16 billion next year.
About one in five surveyed in the poll said they would raise taxes or fees, and fewer said they would cut spending on education or health care for the poor.
The Feb. 2-10 telephone survey of 1,508 registered voters has a margin of error of plus or minus 2.5 percentage points.
Blum & Weprin Associates Inc. conducted the poll for the Austin-American Statesman, The Dallas Morning News, the Fort Worth Star-Telegram, the Houston Chronicle and the San Antonio Express-News.
Asked where to get money for roads, voters were even more ambivalent. Given five widely debated options, toll roads ranked the highest. Twenty-one percent of respondents chose that option.
"It tells me that 20 percent like toll roads, but 80 percent don't like them," said Dale Craymer, president of the Texas Taxpayer and Research Association, a nonpartisan research group.
The results come amid the high-profile Republican gubernatorial primary between Gov. Rick Perry and Sen. Kay Bailey Hutchison. Debra Medina is also in the race.
Perry has made transportation a high priority in his campaign leading to the March 2 vote, while Hutchison has been critical of toll roads, including a Perry-backed plan called the Trans-Texas Corridor.
Craymer said the poll shows that in times of budgetary duress, concrete-and-steel projects that are costly and take years to complete are the first to go in the minds of voters.
"It's not so much an indicator that people are willing to tolerate the traffic as much as it is recognition about the cost of fixing it," Craymer said. "You can throw billions at the problem and not make a dent."
While 38 percent of Texas voters said illegal immigrants should be deported, a combined majority picked two options that would allow them to stay. A path to citizenship was favored by 29 percent of voters, and 23 percent said they support giving immigrants work visas.
"There is a plurality for deporting them and the path to citizenship is not wildly popular in the state except among a few groups — minorities and the young," said the pollster, Mickey Blum.
The economy and jobs was a prevalent worry for many of those interviewed, especially coupled with the looming state deficit.
Most said they believed offering incentives for businesses to move to Texas was the best way to create jobs. Only 16 percent said the state should spend money on public projects as a way to put Texans back to work.
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