Surveys can be powerful tools to help understand the public mindset and attitude. They also can be used to create and shape public opinion.
If the goal is accuracy, survey writers must watch out for how they craft a survey, being careful to avoid leading questions.
“It’s pretty incredible how the way a question is framed will change the way a person responds to it,” said Brett Sharp, a political science professor at the University of Central Oklahoma. “Even the same person could respond differently to the same questions if they are asked differently.”
Such discretion is especially important when the topic is complicated and generally not fully understood. In that case, the researcher must first explain the issue, which also lends itself to possible swaying.
“I’m not sure it’s always intentional, although sometimes it is,” Sharp said. “If you lean a certain way, you can lead people in that direction, even if you’re trying to be fair.”
I received dueling surveys over the past 10 days. They cover the same topic, but reach opposite conclusions.
At issue is the state’s gross production tax on horizontal drilling.
Tax policy always tends to get complicated quickly. This particular tax issue is no exception.
The state historically has assessed a 7 percent tax on most oil and natural gas production. In 1994, the Legislature created an incentive for horizontal drilling. The incentive initially lowered the tax rate to 1 percent for the first 24 months or until costs were recovered. In 2002, the incentive was extended to up to 48 months.
The incentive program is set to expire at the end of the year in a move that would return the tax rate to 7 percent. Industry leaders have said the tax credit should be extended because it has been successful in leading to increased drilling throughout the state and that higher taxes would leave less money available for drilling.
Critics, however, say the tax credit has served its purpose and is no longer necessary. They point out that the lower rate was put in place when horizontal drilling was new and risky, but that it now represents about 90 percents of the drilling activity in the state.
Some oil and natural gas industry supporters this week distributed results of a survey that found that 69 percent of respondents wanted to keep the tax rate where it is or lower it. One week earlier, opponents of the tax incentive released results of a survey they found that 64 percent or respondents oppose the tax breaks oil and gas companies receive for horizontal drilling.
One part of the issue is the terminology used. In general, people — especially those in Oklahoma — tend to be opposed to higher taxes. But the same people who might be against high taxes might also be against tax breaks for certain companies or industries.
It may be semantics, but it’s an important distinction.
It’s no surprise then that 69 percent of respondents oppose higher taxes while 64 percent of respondents oppose tax breaks to the state’s largest industry.
Another issue is whether we’re talking about a new tax. The current tax situation is temporary. It is set to expire at the end of the year. At that point, the tax rate will go up to 7 percent if the Legislature takes no action.
So are we talking about a new tax break or raising taxes? Both are correct, depending on your perspective.