Most Californians would be willing to pay higher taxes to maintain current funding for public schools, and most favor spending cuts in prisons and corrections, according to a survey released Wednesday by the Public Policy Institute of California with funding from the James Irvine Foundation.

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While majorities want to protect K-12 schools and cut spending on prisons, Californians are as divided as their leaders on the overall strategy to deal with the state’s $20 billion budget deficit, with 41 percent favoring a mix of spending cuts and tax increases and 37 percent favoring mostly spending cuts (9 percent favor mostly tax increases). They are in more agreement when it comes to asking the federal government for help, as Gov. Arnold Schwarzenegger has done, with 66 percent saying California should seek federal aid to help meet its budget obligations.

Californians start this election year feeling gloomy about the economy and pessimistic about the state’s direction. Their approval ratings for the governor (30 percent) and legislature (18 percent) are near record lows (27 percent governor, 17 percent legislature). Their view of state government has hit a new, grim milestone: Just 28 percent of all adults say the two branches of government will be able to work together to accomplish a lot in the next year — the lowest level since the PPIC survey began asking the question in January 2006.

As they look to Washington, 61 percent of Californians approve of President Barack Obama’s job performance as he begins his second year in office — a 9-point drop since February 2009. Congress gets a much lower approval rating than the president — 36 percent — similar to January 2009 (37 percent). While a majority of Californians (56 percent) think the president and Congress will be able to work together and accomplish a lot this year, this is a steep, 25-point drop from January 2009 (81 percent).

“Residents have deep concerns about the economy and their own budgets, and they don’t see how California’s leaders will help guide the state through these difficult times,” said Mark Baldassare, PPIC president and CEO. “At the national level, Californians had high hopes last year, but reality has set in that accomplishments will be difficult to achieve in Washington, too.”

Campbell Captures Early Lead in Senate Primary Race

Five months before the primary, former Congressman Tom Campbell has emerged as the early leader in the Republican campaign to oust U.S. Sen. Barbara Boxer. Soon after bowing out of the governor’s race to run for senator, Campbell leads among likely voters in the GOP primary with 27 percent support, while 16 percent support businesswoman Carly Fiorina and 8 percent favor state Assemblyman Chuck DeVore.

Campbell leads among likely voters with household incomes below $80,000 and above $80,000, and among both men and women. Likely voters in the Republican primary include the 12 percent of independent voters who say they will choose to vote on a Republican ballot.

Campbell’s departure from the governor’s race benefited businesswoman Meg Whitman, who increased her lead over state Insurance Commissioner Steve Poizner (41 percent to 11 percent) since December (32 percent to 8 percent). Whitman leads among GOP likely voters with household incomes above and below $80,000, and among both men and women. Men (48 percent) are much more likely than women (34 percent) to support her.

But the highest percentage of GOP likely voters is undecided in both the Senate (48 percent) and gubernatorial (44 percent) primaries. Among female likely voters, more than half (57 percent Senate, 53 percent governor) are undecided.

Fall Matchups: Brown Has Small Edge; Boxer, Campbell in Close Race

In a hypothetical matchup for the November election, unofficial Democratic candidate Jerry Brown retains a narrow lead over Whitman (41 percent to 36 percent) among likely voters, with 23 percent undecided. Support for the candidates runs along party lines: 69 percent of Democrats favor Brown, and 73 percent of Republicans favor Whitman. Independents favor Brown over Whitman, 36 percent to 28 percent, with 36 percent undecided. Brown, the current attorney general and former governor, had a 6-point lead over Whitman in December. His 15-point lead over Poizner (44 percent to 29 percent) is also similar to December’s (47 percent to 31 percent).

In a theoretical Senate matchup, Boxer falls short of a majority against each of the potential challengers. She and Campbell are in a close contest (45 percent to 41 percent). While 79 percent of Democratic likely voters favor Boxer, 84 percent of Republican likely voters favor Campbell. Independents are more divided but favor Boxer (42 percent to 37 percent). Gender differences among likely voters are stark: Boxer has a 14-point lead among female likely voters (50 percent to 36 percent), and Campbell has a 6-point lead among men (46 percent to 40 percent). Boxer has an 8-point lead over Fiorina (48 percent to 40 percent) and DeVore (47 percent to 39 percent).

These hypothetical matchups reflect Boxer’s approval ratings. Among likely voters, 49 percent approve and 44 percent disapprove of her job performance. In February 2004, nine months before she was last re-elected, her approval rating was similar (52 percent), but her disapproval rating was lower (34 percent). Views of Boxer follow partisan lines, with 80 percent of Democratic likely voters approving of her and 84 percent of GOP likely voters disapproving. Among independent likely voters, 46 percent approve and 42 percent disapprove of her job performance. By comparison, 50 percent of likely voters approve of Sen. Dianne Feinstein — who is not running for re-election this year — compared with 41 percent who disapprove.

Half Would Pay More Taxes to Spare Higher Education, Health and Human Services

The candidates are campaigning in a state where an overwhelming number of residents (86 percent) continue to believe that California is in a serious (62 percent) or moderate (24 percent) recession, where 74 percent see things generally headed in the wrong direction, and where 75 percent say the budget situation is a big problem. A majority (60 percent) believe that state government could spend less and still provide the same level of services, but this is a record low in the six times the PPIC survey has asked the question and 10 points lower than the last time it was asked (70 percent, January 2008).

When asked which of the four main areas of state spending they would most want to protect from budget cuts, 58 percent choose K-12 public education — the area most Californians have wanted to spare each of the nine times PPIC has posed the question. Fewer choose health and human services (17 percent) or higher education (15 percent). Far fewer choose prisons and corrections (6 percent). Californians back up these views when asked if they would be willing to pay higher taxes to maintain current funding for these areas:

» K-12 public education — 66 percent yes, 32 percent no

» Higher education — 50 percent yes, 48 percent no

» Health and human services — 50 percent yes, 47 percent no

» Prisons and corrections — 11 percent yes, 87 percent no

Across political parties, and regional and demographic groups, residents are most willing to pay more taxes to maintain funding at K-12 schools, with 79 percent of Democrats, 58 percent of independents and 49 percent of Republicans saying they would be willing to do so. Prisons and corrections garner less than 15 percent support for higher taxes across parties, regions and demographic groups.

On the flip side of this question — cutting spending to help reduce the budget deficit — Californians are least supportive of reductions in K-12 schools (82 percent oppose, 16 percent support) and largely opposed to cuts in higher education (65 percent oppose, 32 percent support) or health and human services (62 percent oppose, 34 percent support). A large majority (70 percent vs. 27 percent oppose) favor spending cuts in prisons and corrections.

While just 21 percent of Californians have a favorable impression of Schwarzenegger’s final State of the State address on Jan. 6 (37 percent unfavorable, 31 percent volunteer that they haven’t heard about it), they are more supportive of his budget proposal when they are read a brief description of what he says it will achieve: 55 percent say they are satisfied. A majority (56 percent vs. 40 percent yes) don’t think tax increases should be part of the budget plan.

Whom do they trust to make tough choices about the state budget? Thirty-eight percent say Democrats in the legislature, 22 percent say Republicans in the legislature and 17 percent say the governor. In the 13 times the PPIC survey has asked this question, pluralities of Californians have chosen Democrats in the legislature 12 times. But the percentage making this choice has never exceeded 39 percent.

On the issue of long-term reform of the budget process, most (72 percent) Californians believe that they — not their leaders — should make reform decisions at the ballot box.

However, Californians’ knowledge is far from perfect when it comes to understanding the budget. Only 28 percent correctly identify personal income tax as the area representing most of the revenue. Thirty percent name the sales tax as the biggest source of revenue when it is actually a distant No. 2.

Asked to name the area that represents the most spending, only 16 percent of residents correctly identify K-12 education. Half (49 percent) say the most money goes to prisons and corrections, although this category is actually in fourth place, behind schools, health and human services, and higher education.

“If Californians are going to rely on the ballot box for making critical choices about the budget process, the state’s leaders need to do a better job educating the decision makers about where the money comes from and where it goes,” Baldassare says.

More Key Findings

» Support for strict spending cap, lower threshold on budget approval. A majority (69 percent) of Californians favors strict limits on the amount that state spending can increase. Half (51 percent) favor lowering the two-thirds legislative vote requirement to pass a state budget.

» Change the tax system? Yes, Californians say. Most (84 percent) say major or minor changes are needed in the state and local tax system, but 53 percent view the system as fair. The percentage calling it very or moderately fair has dropped 13 points since June 2003.

» Public employee pensions seen as a problem. A majority of Californians say the amount of money spent on the public employee pension system is a problem (41 percent big, 35 percent somewhat of a problem), and the percentage calling it a big problem has grown 10 points since January 2005. Two in three (67 percent) would favor changing the system for new public employees from defined benefits to one similar to a 401(k) plan.

Findings of the PPIC statewide survey are based on a telephone survey of 2,001 California adult residents interviewed on landlines and cell phones Jan. 12-19. Interviews were conducted in English or Spanish, according to respondents’ preferences. The sampling error is plus or minus 2 percent for all adults, plus or minus 3 percent for the 1,223 likely voters, and plus or minus 5 percent for the 425 Republican primary likely voters who were asked questions about the Senate and gubernatorial races.

Click here to view the results of the survey.

— Linda Strean is the associate director and media and Web for the Public Policy Institute of California.