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Poll suggests Mass. voters back changes

A majority of Massachusetts voters favor legalizing casino gambling and doubt that Governor Mitt Romney can craft a fail-proof death-penalty system, a new University of Massachusetts poll shows.

The survey of 401 registered voters, taken Nov. 15 to 19, also found most voters opposed giving in to demands by the law firms demanding $1.3 billion in legal fees from the state's tobacco settlement fund.

As lawmakers contemplate changes in a handful of major social policies, the poll results suggest that Massachusetts voters are open to changes in the state's prohibitions against casinos, the death penalty, and Sunday liquor sales.

The UMass poll shows that 56 percent of voters who were questioned support allowing casino gambling to operate in Massachusetts, while 43 percent oppose it. Only 1 percent had no opinion. An effort to bring two resort-style casinos and slot machines to state racetracks failed in the Senate earlier this month.

On another issue that could soon come before the Legislature, 54 percent of those questioned said they support the death penalty. A significant minority, 45 percent, expressed opposition to reinstating capital punishment in Massachusetts.

However, a strong majority, 62 percent, expressed skepticism about Romney's proposal to create a fail-proof system for imposing the death sentence, according to the poll.

Romney wants to craft a death penalty bill that would use cutting-edge science to ensure that only the guilty face capital punishment. A commission he named is to come up with recommendations that he hopes to unveil early next year.

In another issue -- a plan recently approved by the Legislature -- 64 percent of voters who were questioned said liquor stores should be open Sundays, while 33 percent opposed the idea. Romney signed a bill yesterday to legalize the Sunday openings.

The poll also gauged public opinion toward lawyers who are currently in court trying to enforce a contingency contract for work on the tobacco settlement. Only 37 percent of respondents said state officials should follow through with the agreement to pay the lawyers a percentage of the settlement. However, 57 percent said state officials should resist their demands.

The lawyers, who are suing Attorney General Thomas F. Reilly to force him to pay a 25 percent contingency fee, had already received $775 million from a special arbitration panel.

The poll, most of which was conducted before the Supreme Judicial Court's ruling on gay marriage on Nov. 18, also found Romney popular among voters, with a 66 percent approval rating and 33 percent disapproval.

But that result sharply contrasted with surveys taken after the ruling and Romney's high-profile opposition to it. A Globe/WBZ-TV survey of 400 residents (as compared to voters) indicated that only 45 percent viewed him favorably, and 39 percent unfavorably.

Lou DiNatale, the UMass poll director, said the differences in Romney's standing in the two polls could be attributed to, among several factors, the timing around the court's decision and the governor's positioning against the ruling. He said Romney's base among suburban independents, who are fiscally conservative but socially liberal, may well have been put off by his stance.

"It appears that Romney's intuitive reaction to the court ruling put him at odds with those unenrolled voters who elected him and have supported him," DiNatale said. The poll was taken from Nov. 15 to 19. It has a margin of error of plus or minus 5 percentage points.

Romney said he opposed the court's ruling but would support a civil-union system for gay couples. He is also pushing for a constitutional amendment banning same-sex marriages. A Globe poll taken in the two days following the ruling showed 50 percent of Massachusetts residents supported the court's opinion, with 38 percent opposed.

In other findings, voters surveyed were split over whether the state should pursue taxes or service cuts. Antitax sentiment is alive and well, but anger at the cutbacks, particularly in local education, runs strong. Asked if the state is headed in the right direction, 42 percent said yes, 46 percent no.

Forty-five percent said they have felt some impact of the service cuts, while 54 percent suffered little or no effect.

A solid majority of voters surveyed, 54 percent, said they have seen their property taxes rise significantly, while a third of respondents said their taxes have not gone up by any significant degree. The economy was blamed by 28 percent; local officials, 27 percent; the Legislature, 20 percent; Romney was blamed by 11 percent.

By 48 to 24 percent, respondents favored raising taxes over cutting more services to deal with the state's $2 billion budget deficit. Voters seemed more comfortable with the Democratic lawmakers making the final decision on taxes and service cuts. Some 54 percent said they trust the Legislature to make the right decision about taxes and cuts; only 35 percent trusted Romney.

Asked what state or local service cuts affected them most, 37 percent cited school funding; 17 percent said they were laid off; 12 percent cited loss of health care; and 11 percent noted reduced hours of service.

Over half, 54 percent, opposed any new state or property taxes, but 35 percent said they would prefer state taxes, such as income, sales, or gas taxes. Only 4.5 percent preferred an increase in property taxes.

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