By Daniel Weintraub
The good news for Gov. Jerry Brown is that Californians overwhelmingly agree with his proposal for a special election on his plan to extend temporary taxes to help erase the state’s budget shortfall.
The bad news for Brown, however, is that those same voters are not nearly as enthusiastic about the plan itself. Many apparently want a chance to vote on it so they can vote it down.
Those are among the findings from a new, independent poll by the Public Policy Institute of California.
The survey of more than 2,000 adults also unearthed new evidence suggesting that the safest route for Brown, politically, might be to repackage his plan into one that simply shifts services, and taxes, from the state to local governments, which are much more popular with the voters.
The poll, taken just after Brown released his revised budget in May, found that 76 percent of likely voters think voters should be asked to make some of the decisions about taxing and spending in the new budget. Just 21 percent of likely voters say the governor and the Legislature should reserve this power to themselves.
A large majority of voters (62 percent) also say they favor the broad outlines of Brown’s revised proposal, which would extend or re-impose higher taxes on income, cars, and sales to raise about $11 billion a year.
But that support craters when voters are asked about the specific taxes in his plan.
Only 46 percent of likely voters say they support those tax measures. Fifty-eight percent of Republicans and 53 percent of independents oppose the plan, while 49 percent of Democrats support it.
And even among those who say they favor a special election, the tax plan loses: 47 percent to 45 percent.
“Californians have favorable views of the governor’s revised budget plan and his special election idea,” Mark Baldassare, PPIC president and CEO, said in a statement released with the poll results. “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 best hope, the poll suggests, might be to reinforce an idea that has been a big part of his plan from the beginning: a shift of services, and the money to pay for them, from the state to local governments.
Under Brown’s proposal, about $6 billion in criminal justice, health and welfare programs would be transferred from the state to local government. The same amount of money – with revenue from the extended taxes – would also go to the counties. And even after those taxes expired in five years, the state would still be on the hook to keep transferring the money to the locals.
This would help Brown balance the state budget because even if the state is shifting the revenue from the extended taxes to the locals, it would also be shedding responsibility for the programs and their cost. Without the shift and the tax extensions, the state would continue to pay for the programs but it would lose the revenue anyway, when the taxes expired.
As it stands, though, this shift, known in the Capitol as “realignment,” is only part of Brown’s plan. The PPIC poll suggests he might fare better if that was all he asked the voters to approve.
The survey found that only 18 percent of voters say they trust state government to do what is right always or most of the time. And 72 percent say state government is run by a few big interests looking out for themselves rather than the general welfare of all Californians.
In contrast, about 35 percent of voters say they can trust local government to do what is right always or most of the time. And 78 percent of likely voters say they would prefer local officials rather than the state to have control over how state money is spent at the local level.
All of this points to a strategy that asks the voters to approve the tax extensions by appealing to their desire to shrink state government and empower local officials to spend the money.
This approach might even play on the voters’ most emphatic judgment about state spending: they hate spending money on prisons. Of all the major programs, prisons are the only one for which voters say they would not be willing to raise taxes. Likely voters across the political spectrum agree with this position.
Brown’s plan calls for shifting thousands of prisoners and parolees to local supervision. The result would be a cut in the state prison population, and in its budget.
According to the results of the PPIC poll, a plan that cuts the size of state government, slashes spending on prisons and gives more power to local officials might be the one thing that could overcome the voters’ reluctance to extend, re-impose or raise taxes, even on a temporary basis.