Tennesseans think highly of the governor, but less so of the legislature, which is poised to take on a bundle of social issues low on the public’s totem pole, according to a Vanderbilt University survey released Wednesday.
Topics like guns and other social issues are the least of the public’s priorities, the study found, while the economy ranks as the supreme issue, far ahead of the next two top issues of education and health care.
“That’s what they need to focus on and they could end up losing popularity if they choose to focus on issues that the public doesn’t want them to,” said John Geer, Vanderbilt political science professor and co-director of the survey by the Center for the Study of Democratic Institutions.
Geer said the poll reflects that the legislature, which has a 52 percent approval rating, suffers more for considering controversial pieces of legislation. Meanwhile, Gov. Bill Haslam enjoys a 68 percent approval rating, which includes high marks from 60 percent of those respondents who identified themselves as Democrats.
“People may want to complain about him, but based on popularity, the state’s not prepared to do that yet,” Geer said.
The poll of 829 registered voters across the state showed people torn over the state’s role related to the Affordable Care Act. It found 53 percent of respondents, including 73 percent of Republicans, were in favor of the state running a health insurance exchange, which would work like an online marketplace for people and small businesses to buy insurance.
The results came too late for the governor to consider before siding Monday with legislative Republicans and vocal Tea Party protesters to let the federal government run it instead .
Haslam and the Republican-legislature are also on the spot this year to decide whether to expand Medicaid coverage for the state’s low-income uninsured adults as encouraged under the Affordable Care Act. So far, legislative Republicans have said they are leaning against expanding the program.
The poll also found respondents were split 47 percent in favor of expanding Medicaid to 46 percent wanting to keep the program as is.
Sixty percent of voters polled said the economy and jobs were their top priority for the state, versus 18 percent who indicated education was the most important, followed by 10 percent who pointed to health care.
Legislative leaders have all but promised to take up a controversial gun law expansion next year that would allow gun owners to legally store their firearms in their vehicle parked on employers’ property. The issue drove a wedge between two of the Republicans’ core constituencies: business groups arguing for property rights and gun rights advocates arguing for their Second Amendment rights.
While 70 percent of respondents said private entities like religious groups, private colleges and businesses should be allowed to make their own policies without government interference, 53 percent said employers should be required by state law to allow employees to keep guns in their vehicles. Forty-four percent disagreed.
The Vanderbilt survey was conducted by phone interviews by Princeton Survey Research Associates International from Nov. 27 to Dec. 9. The margin of error for the weighted sample is plus or minus 4.3 percentage points.
The legislature is expected to return to Capitol Hill to convene next year’s legislative session on Jan. 8.