Pennsylvania legislators struggling to gauge public sentiment about a tax on Marcellus Shale natural gas can always turn to opinion polls.
As luck would have it, there is a poll to support every position.
Gov. Rendell, who has been pressing the legislature to enact a tax on gas production this week, often cites an August survey that found that 78 percent of Pennsylvanians support a gas severance tax, while only 14 percent oppose it.
That seems decisive.
Except that, in March, a Franklin & Marshall College poll arrived at a different conclusion. The poll, directed by G. Terry Madonna, indicated that only 35 percent of Pennsylvanians favor increasing taxes on natural-gas extraction companies. Nearly half - 49 percent - were opposed.
What to make of this?
It's all in how the question is asked.
Gas-industry supporters say the Rendell-commissioned telephone poll of 504 people, conducted by Republican pollster Frank Luntz and Democratic pollster Jefrey Pollock, was biased and designed to elicit a specific response to support the governor's position.
The 123-word question begins by explaining that the Marcellus Shale is a large natural-gas discovery and that "large multinational gas-drilling companies from other states and other countries are coming here to lease land and extract this gas."
"This discovery holds the promise of significant economic development and the creation of new jobs, but it has also placed new and difficult stresses on local services, harmed water supplies, and destroyed local roads.
"In other states, these companies pay a special tax to fund programs that will protect our environment and help local governments handle the increased demand on their services. Would you favor or oppose a special tax on these multinational gas companies for that specific purpose?"
Severance-tax opponents say it's no wonder three-quarters of the respondents agreed to tax companies that the question implies are foreign-owned.
"This is public-opinion polling malpractice at its worst," said Travis Windle, spokesman for the Marcellus Shale Coalition, an industry group.
Gary Tuma, Rendell's spokesman, said the poll question "presents factual and relevant information."
The Franklin & Marshall telephone poll of 964 registered voters in Pennsylvania asked respondents whether they supported or opposed several state tax proposals, including taxing cigars and smokeless tobacco or making I-80 a toll road.
Without attempting to describe the Marcellus Shale, the college's pollsters simply asked whether responents supported "increasing taxes on companies that extract and sell natural gas." A plurality said no.
A similar telephone poll of 600 registered voters in Pennsylvania conducted in July by Harris Interactive on behalf of the American Petroleum Institute found even greater opposition to more taxes on oil and gas, without specifically asking about a severance tax.
The Harris poll asked a series of questions about various taxes, including: "Do you support or oppose increased taxes on America's oil and natural-gas industry?" About 31 percent supported higher taxes, and 61 percent opposed.
Who's to say politicians in Harrisburg even read the polls?
The governor has proposed a 6.2 percent severance tax, the House Democrats have proposed a 9.8 percent tax, and the Senate Republicans have called for a 1.5 percent tax.
Madonna, director of Franklin & Marshall's Center for Politics and Public Affairs, said that no matter how the poll question is phrased, he does not detect much public upheaval about shale gas.
"I think it is not exactly something the residents of the state know much about or are very much concerned about, despite the fact it's a huge policy and political issue in the state," he said.
Contact staff writer Andrew Maykuth
at 215-854-2947 or email@example.com.