California Field Poll Shows Voters Prefer Budget Cuts to New Taxes in Theory, But Oppose Specific Cuts When Identified
By Frank D. Russo
The California Field Poll has just released figures from their survey of registered voters, which they describe as “paradoxical views about the state deficit.”
This survey of over a thousand voters, gives us a big clue as to why we are in the mess we are in when it comes to the budget and getting our state’s fiscal house in order. In short, voters say that they prefer that the massive budget deficit be dealt with mostly by spending cuts over being dealt with by mostly tax increases. As a general principle, they say this overwhelmingly—63% to 26%. But when asked about making cuts in specific areas of the budget, by even larger margins they oppose cuts in the vast majority of these areas. And they have deep concerns about budget cuts in health, an area measured in some detail as to different kinds of health programs funded by the state budget.
The numbers are quite amazing. They fill in the voters’ generalized feelings, as reflected in earlier polls that one could cut 10% to 20% of the state budget without seeing a real decline in services vital to California. This may be due to the Democrats’ protection of these programs in the past and even the Governor’s unwillingness to make major cuts in these popular and I would say necessary programs for our future. Even Republican legislators, if you look back to last year’s budget dance, were not willing to publicly reveal the specific cuts they wanted to make, but entered into closed door meetings with Democrats with a list they didn’t want to make public. Nobody wants to have their fingerprints on budget cuts.
Hence the notion that there is “fat” to be cut. If these cuts are made, these results show, the public will see that the cuts are to muscle and tendons that hold us together.
The one area that stands out where California voters support cuts is in prison and correctional spending, but it will remain to be seen if they vote for tough law and order increases in sentencing that will be on the ballot in November and that will lock the state into billions of dollars of more spending through the ballot box.
Let’s look at the specific numbers.
The first question asked is: “Would you prefer that the state government deal with its current large budget deficit, estimated to be about 14 to 20 billion dollars, mostly through spending cuts or mostly through tax increases?”
Note the wording here is qualified by the word “mostly.” Voters are not asked whether the deficit should be closed by “all” cuts or entirely by taxes. The 63% to 26% support for cuts over taxes includes Democrats (49% to 26%), Republicans (80% to 13%) and non-partisan others by 64% to 25%).
Next, voters are asked: “As a way to reduce the deficit, the Governor and the state legislature are proposing to make cuts to various areas of state government spending. I am going to read some of these and for each, please tell me whether you favor or oppose making cuts to this area of state spending. (ITEMS READ IN RANDOM ORDER) Do you favor or oppose making cuts to this area in order to reduce the state budget deficit?”
If you look at the areas identified by the Governor for cuts in his May Revise of the budget, there is strong opposition—unmistakable—to the areas where he is looking for the bulk of the billions of dollars to make his budget work.
By 80% to 20%, Californians oppose cuts to the public schools.
The numbers opposed to cuts in health care programs for low income Californians and the disabled are sky high (77 % to 20%). Mental health programs (73% to 24%), and the list goes on. They include highere education cuts, opposed 71% to 28%, public transportation--an area the Governor blue penciled after the budget was passed last year and from which he proposes cuts this year—opposed 67% to 30%.
Cutting these is more strongly opposed than curing water storage and supply facilities (64% to 29%) and state road and highway building and repair (62% to 36%)—areas the voters have passed bonds in and that there is money to be spent that has yet to be allocated.
The public also opposes cuts in environmental regulation by 56% to 39%. Remember—these are the cuts that the Republican legislators held up approval of last year’s budget for the last month before final passage—taking away from the Attorney General enforcement of the California Environmental Quality Act (CEQA). This year, they have proposed delaying enforcement of AB 32 on greenhouse gases and global warming.
There is slight opposition—50% to 46% to state prisons and correctional facilities—and as we will see in response to a later question, this is the one area that voters are most willing to have cut. The one area without a majority of California voters opposed to cuts—state energy contacts that help supply California with electricity—(48% opposed and 39% supporting) has less substantially fewer in favor and a high percentage of voters who have no opinion.
Field next asked voters: “Some of the largest areas of state spending are: the public schools, prisons and corrections, health care programs, higher education, and public assistance programs. (CATEGORIES READ IN RANDOM ORDER). Thinking about these five areas of state spending, which area are you most willing to protect against cuts in spending even if it means raising taxes?”
By a margin of 47% to 8% voters were most willing to cut prisons “to avoid a tax increase” and the least willing to protect from cutbacks “if it meant a tax increase,” This is more than double the number (23%) who said they were most willing to cut public assistance programs, with 6% saying they were most willing to protect them.
On all other areas—higher education, the public schools, and health care programs, there was more willingness to protect these programs than to cut—even if it means a tax increase.
And when asked about cuts in various health programs, strong majorities of California’s voters said they were concerned—usually “very concerned.” 86% were concerned about cutbacks in hospital emergency rooms and trauma centers—55% of them “very concerned. Only 13% said they were not too concerned or not at all concerned.
Similar results were obtained about cuts in health care programs for low income Califonrians and the disabled “like Medi-Cal” where 80% were concerned and 19% not concerned. Thes wee followed by 76% concern over staffing for nursing homes cuts, 72% on immunizations and prenatal care, and 60% on public health and bioterrorism.
Californians Expect Tax Increases—And They Support Taxes to Maintain Health Services
By a margin of 81% to 14%, California registered voters expect that the current deficit, in the end, will be resolved with a tax increase. The numbers are the same for Democrats, Republicans, and independents.
By margins of 75% to 23%, they support increasing state tobacco taxes. Similarly, by 75% to 24%, they support an increase in the state alcohol tax. They also favor increasing the top state personal income tax by 69% to 29%. And an increase in taxes on business property by 56% to 41%, state business income taxes by 54% to 41%.
But voters are mixed on leasing the California lottery—42% support and 44% opposition--and increasing the state’s indebtedness by issuing more bonds--42% to 45%.
And the numbers for there are adverse to expanding the state sales tax, increasing the state sales tax, and increasing taxes on residential property.
As we enter the real budget negotiation season this year, this may provide a road map for legislators. The road looks difficult right now.