Public opinion about Sacramento politicians has plunged to dismal new depths-and that was before Californians heard about the Spanky Duvall sex scandal.

“Spanky” is the instantly coined nickname for a now infamous ex-Assemblymember named Mike Duvall, an Orange County, family-values, married Republican who resigned in disgrace last week. One step ahead of the posse, he fled Sacramento shortly after KCAL-TV and the OC Weekly disclosed videotapes showing him bragging at a Capitol hearing to a colleague about his sexual conquests of a lobbyist with business before a committee he cochaired (in addition to a second woman with whom he crowed that he was cheating on his mistress). No rocket scientist he, Duvall did his boasting into an open microphone recording the hearing, and spared no salacious detail about his affair, including spanking sessions and other matters too gross to recount in an alternative newspaper.

Capitol Letters

The bombshell reports captivated the Capitol in the final days of the legislative session and seemed an apt symbol for the shameful spectacle of Sacramento in a week when a new statewide poll showed Californians’ distrust of their state government greater than ever before. The survey, by the San Francisco-based Public Policy Institute of California (PPIC), reported that three-quarters of residents believe Sacramento is “run by a few big interests looking out for themselves,” with less than one in three approving of Gov. Arnold Schwarzenegger’s performance and only one in five approving of the Legislature.

The silver lining in all this is that Californians now support several key reform plans that have recently been proposed, but view a batch of other clean-up-the-mess ideas with considerably less enthusiasm.

At a time when recession and higher-than-national unemployment grip the state, 72 percent of its residents say California is headed in the wrong direction, while 67 percent say the next year will bring more financial hard times. Although both figures are slightly improved from a similar poll taken in July, they are among the most negative views ever recorded by PPIC.

Here is a look at some other key findings:

Budget: Amid the chronic failure of the governor and Legislature to stem the state’s massive budget deficits, an extraordinary 96 percent of Californians now view the budget as a problem, and 60 percent say they are very concerned about how spending cuts will impact the services provided by their local governments. These attitudes have pushed some reform ideas to the fore, including a strict cap on state spending, a Republican-inspired idea which is favored by 65 percent; on the other side of the balance sheet, a majority (53 percent) now support the Democrats’ proposal to reduce the two-thirds vote needed to pass a budget to 55 percent.

Taxes: Perhaps the most surprising finding of the new poll is that half of those surveyed said the two-thirds vote now needed to raise local taxes should also be relaxed to 55 percent of voters in favor. Another unexpected result: Nearly six in 10 residents (58 percent) back a “split roll” system of property taxes, in which commercial property would be taxed at a higher rate than residential. Both the two-thirds tax vote and the current property tax system are foundations of Proposition 13, the historic 1978 tax-cut measure. While favoring changes in some features of Prop. 13, however, a strong majority of Californians (55 percent) say it is “mostly a good thing,” while 30 percent say it is “mostly a bad thing.”

Political reforms: With Capitol gridlock driven largely by partisan polarization, Californians strongly favor an “open primary” system, in which the top two vote getters in a first round of voting compete in the general election, regardless of party, a proposal headed for the 2010 ballot. But they strongly oppose two other, widely discussed legislative reform ideas. A large majority-59 to 15 percent-oppose relaxing term limits for state office holders; in fact, residents support a toughening of constitutional term limits, with length of service cut from 14 to 12 years. As several new initiatives circulate aimed at making the Legislature a part-time rather than full-time operation, Californians oppose the idea, by a margin of 44 to 23 percent, with the balance saying it would make no difference.

“Change is in the air,” said poll taker Mark Baldassare, “but Californians are proceeding with caution.”

The entire survey is available on the PPIC Web site.

P.S. Shortly after quitting, Spanky Duvall posted an online statement claiming that he didn’t do all the things he bragged on, while coining a memorable new phrase: “My offense was engaging in inappropriate story-telling.” Got it.


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