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Statewide Survey: Californians Say Voters Should Have Voice in Budget Choices

Most respondents support a special election on Gov. Brown’s plan, but many balk at specific tax hikes

The vast majority of Californians think voters should have a say in budget decisions this year, according to a statewide survey released Wednesday by the Public Policy Institute of California, with support from the James Irvine Foundation.

In this survey — taken just after Gov. Jerry Brown released his revised budget proposal in May — 77 percent of adults (76 percent likely voters) say voters should make some of the decisions about taxing and spending, while just 20 percent of adults (21 percent likely voters) say the governor and Legislature should make all of these decisions.

On the specific question of whether there should be a special election on Brown’s proposed tax and fee package to prevent further budget cuts, 68 percent of adults and 62 percent of likely voters say a special election is a good idea. Support for this idea — which dropped from January to March — has increased among all adults (67 percent January, 54 percent March, 58 percent April) and likely voters (66 percent January, 51 percent March, 56 percent April).

Majorities of adults (64 percent) and likely voters (62 percent) favor the governor’s revised budget proposal, which includes an $11 billion reduction in the budget deficit already approved and would close the remaining gap through temporary tax increases, tax revenues that have been higher than expected and more spending cuts. Brown’s plan also includes increased funding for K-12 public schools and community colleges, and places about $1 billion in reserve.

But while most Californians generally approve of Brown’s plan when read this summary, they oppose the specifics of his tax and fee package. Fewer than half of adults (41 percent) or likely voters (46 percent) support his proposal to extend temporary increases in state sales tax and vehicle license fees for five years and to reinstate a temporary income tax increase in 2012 for four years. Republicans (58 percent) and independents (53 percent) are more opposed than Democrats (49 percent favor, 42 percent oppose). Among those who favor a special election, opinion is divided on Brown’s tax and fee package among adults (47 percent favor, 45 percent oppose).

“Californians have favorable views of the governor’s revised budget plan and his special election idea,” said Mark Baldassare, PPIC president and CEO. “Yet the fact that fewer than half support his tax and fee package raises questions about the outcome if the voters have their say.”

Brown’s Approval Rating at 42 Percent

There is no consensus on how Californians would like to deal with the state’s multibillion-dollar budget gap: 40 percent prefer a mix of spending cuts and tax increases, while 36 percent favor mostly spending cuts. Just 9 percent prefer mostly tax increases and 8 percent say it’s OK to borrow and run a deficit. When it comes to the tough choices involved in state budgeting, half of Californians prefer the approach of Brown (23 percent) or of the Democrats in the Legislature (27 percent), and 24 percent prefer the approach of the Legislature’s Republicans.

Asked how they feel about the way Brown is handling his job, 42 percent of adults approve, 24 percent disapprove and 33 percent don’t know. Likely voters rate the governor similarly (46 percent approve, 28 percent disapprove), but they are less likely to say they don’t know (25 percent). Brown’s job approval rating among adults is similar to his rating in April and has rebounded somewhat from February (41 percent January, 34 percent February, 34 percent March, 40 percent April, 42 percent today). His job approval rating among likely voters follows a similar pattern (47 percent January, 41 percent February, 41 percent March, 46 percent April, 46 percent today).

Job approval ratings for the Legislature are much lower than the governor’s: 23 percent of adults and 17 percent of likely voters approve (58 percent adults, 72 percent likely voters disapprove).

Most Want Spending Cuts in Prisons, Corrections

When asked about cutting spending to help reduce the state budget deficit, solid majorities of adults and likely voters oppose cuts in three of the four largest budget categories: K-12 public education (76 percent adults, 73 percent likely voters), higher education (68 percent adults, 64 percent likely voters) or health and human services (66 percent adults, 61 percent likely voters). But they support cuts in the fourth category: prisons and corrections (62 percent adults, 70 percent likely voters).

Californians say they are willing to pay higher taxes to maintain current funding levels for K-12 public education (69 percent), for higher education (56 percent), and for health and human services (57 percent). Most likely voters (63 percent) would pay higher taxes for K-12 schools, but they are divided on higher education (51 percent yes, 47 percent no) and on health and human services (51 percent yes, 47 percent no). But in this survey — taken mainly before the U.S. Supreme Court ruled that California must reduce its prison population — 79 percent of adults and 80 percent of likely voters oppose paying more in taxes to maintain current funding levels for prisons and corrections.

“Public opinion is an obstacle to finding solutions to prison overcrowding,” Baldassare said. “While Californians disagree on many fiscal issues, they overwhelmingly oppose tax increases — and favor spending cuts — for prisons and corrections.”

While Californians say they are generally willing to consider higher taxes for public schools, higher education, and health and human services, fewer than half support raising taxes and fees in specific categories:

» Raising state personal income taxes (38 percent adults, 35 percent likely voters favor)

» Raising the state sales tax on all purchases (25 percent adults, 30 percent likely voters favor)

» Increasing the vehicle license fee (34 percent adults, 38 percent likely voters favor)

» Extending the state sales tax to services that are not currently taxed (39 percent adults, 42 percent likely voters favor)

Local Governments Viewed as More Trustworthy than State

Californians’ negative views of the state’s elected officials are echoed in their lack of trust in state government. Only about a quarter of residents say they can trust state government to do what is right just about always (5 percent adults, 2 percent likely voters) or most of the time (22 percent adults, 16 percent likely voters). Majorities say they can trust state government to do what is right only some or none of the time (72 percent adults, 81 percent likely voters). Most (67 percent adults, 72 percent likely voters) feel that state government is pretty much run by a few big interests looking out for themselves rather than for the benefit of all the people. Fewer — but still a majority — say local government is run by a few big interests (54 percent adults, 53 percent likely voters).

Asked about trust in their local government, about a third say they can trust local government to do what is right just about always (6 percent adults, 5 percent likely voters) or most of the time (29 percent adults, 30 percent likely voters).

Brown has proposed shifting funding and responsibility for some programs from the state to local governments. Asked about the relationship between state and local governments, Californians say there’s a need for change, with 52 percent saying major changes are needed, 32 percent saying minor changes are needed, and just 11 percent saying the relationship is fine as is. Who should have the most control in deciding how money from state government is spent at the local level? Strong majorities (70 percent adults, 78 percent likely voters) prefer local government over state government (25 percent adults, 18 percent likely voters).

If there is a realignment of responsibilities, local governments may need to find new ways to raise revenues, and fiscal reforms have been suggested to address this issue. Asked their views on lowering the vote requirement to pass local special taxes from two-thirds to 55 percent, just over half of adults (54 percent) and 51 percent of likely voters say this is a good idea. Other reforms proposed to address structural issues in the state budget get the support of strong majorities: 72 percent of adults (75 percent likely voters) say it would be a good idea to strictly limit the amount of money by which the state can increase spending each year, and 70 percent of adults (69 percent likely voters) say it would be a good idea to increase the size of the state’s rainy day fund.

Support for Initiatives — and for Reforms in the Process

By strong majorities, Californians say it is a good thing that voters can make laws and change public policies by passing initiatives (75 percent adults, 73 percent likely voters), and that decisions made through the initiative process are probably better than decisions made by the governor and Legislature (62 percent adults and likely voters). But most also say major changes (39 percent adults, 37 percent likely voters) or minor ones (37 percent adults, 40 percent likely voters) are needed in the process.

Four reforms suggested for the initiative process are favored by majorities of residents:

» Having a period of time in which the initiative sponsor and the Legislature could meet to see if there is a compromise solution before initiatives are put on the ballot (81 percent adults, 83 percent likely voters)

» Increasing public disclosure of funding sources for signature gathering and initiative campaigns (80 percent adults, 86 percent likely voters)

» Allowing initiatives only in November general elections, rather than in any statewide election (57 percent adults, 59 percent likely voters)

» Increasing the number of signatures required to qualify an initiative for the ballot (55 percent adults, 51 percent likely voters)

More Key Findings

» Pessimism persists — Californians are more pessimistic about the state’s direction than they have been all year but less pessimistic than they were in 2010, with 61 percent saying California is headed in the wrong direction and just 29 percent saying it’s headed in the right direction.

» Economic concerns dominate — Jobs and the economy top the list of the most important issues Californians face, as it has since March 2008. Most (58 percent) expect bad times financially in the next year. Nearly half say the state is in a serious economic recession (47 percent) and are concerned that someone in their own family will lose a job in the next year (48 percent).

» Most paying attention to budget news — Most Californians (61 percent) say they are following news about the state’s budget situation very or fairly closely.

About the Survey

Findings are based on a telephone survey of 2,005 California adult residents interviewed on landlines and cell phones from May 17-24. Interviews were conducted in English or Spanish according to respondents’ preferences. The sampling error, taking design effects from weighting into consideration, is plus or minus 3.6 percent for all adults, plus or minus 3.9 percent for the 1,338 registered voters and plus or minus 4.3 percent for the 989 likely voters.

Click here to view the complete survey.

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