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Mixed Messages

Voters Resist Cuts to Public Schools but Oppose Paying More to Avoid Them


Californians love Jerry Brown’s plan for fixing state finances. They just hate what’s in it.

That’s the bottom line of a just-out statewide poll of the attitudes of voters about the governor’s fiercely debated proposal on whether to supplement billions in state spending cuts with a batch of higher taxes in order to craft a solution to the chronic budget deficit.

The survey, by the widely respected Public Policy Institute of California (PPIC), underscored a plain, if bedeviling, fact about politics in the state, where most voters are of two minds about what they want from government: a high level of services joined to a low level of taxation.

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As George Orwell famously noted, “Double­think means the power of holding two contradictory beliefs in one’s mind simultaneously — and accepting both of them.”

Some key findings from the new PPIC poll are as follows:

• Nearly two-thirds of voters favor Brown’s plan for an up-or-down special election on his proposed deficit reduction plan.

• Nearly two-thirds also say they support the substance of the plan, which includes not only $11 billion in reductions already approved in Sacramento but also about an equal amount in new revenue, to be generated by extending temporary higher income-, sales-, and vehicle-tax rates, which otherwise are set to expire.

• Large majorities, however, oppose the specifics of his tax proposal, with just 46 percent favoring continuation of increased tax rates, which were approved for two years in 2009.

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

Talk about a master of understatement.

As a policy matter, voters strongly disapprove of any further cuts in three of the four largest program areas in the budget: 73 percent oppose reductions in K-12 schools, 64 percent don’t want decreases in higher education, and 61 percent disagree with health and welfare cuts. The only major budget cut that a majority of voters support is in prisons and corrections, with 80 percent in favor.

Taken together, the survey results on taxing and spending challenge Brown with a stunningly complex political calculus as he faces a constitutional budget deadline of June 15.

For starters, some of his Democratic allies at the Capitol, fearing the public might reject his tax plan, now are pressing him to craft a legislative strategy to push through his program, which avoids the need for a special election; some Democrats also have begun trying to roll back some cuts enacted earlier this year because tax revenues came in several billion dollars higher than expected. The governor has vowed to veto any such spending that gets put back into the budget; he also is sticking to his promise to seek public approval for any tax increases, a vow that was the centerpiece of his campaign.

Another newly complicating factor is the recent U.S. Supreme Court decision ordering California to reduce overcrowding in state prisons. Despite the desire of voters to reduce spending on the corrections system, the court ruling means the state may have to spend more on prisons; the alternative is releasing thousands of prisoners to the custody of county jails, which cannot afford to house them without additional funds from the state; those will not be forthcoming without approval of higher taxes.

Finally, the governor is still confronted by the unanimous opposition of Republicans, who have thwarted him by withholding the four votes he needs in order to achieve the constitution’s two-thirds super-majority requirement for making any policy move involving higher taxes.

On the surface, at least, Brown remains sanguine, insisting he will yet find the sweet spot to balance the countless conflicting demands on the budget, the singular issue that has dominated politics in Sacramento since his inauguration in January. Asked about the PPIC poll findings, he retreated to full Zen mode: “It’s a little hard to interpret.”

Continuing to seek political support for his plan, Brown addressed a major state Chamber of Commerce event a few days ago and offered this assessment of where things stand:

“There is a zone of potential agreement, and that’s what I’m looking for,” he said. “And I have to tell you, pushing back the Republicans is just about as difficult as pushing back the Democrats. I’m glad that I’ve come here in my declining years to give it the college try.”

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