The New Polls: Plumbing Gridlock


Posted on 19 November 2010

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By Peter Schrag

If you want to know why California is stuck in budgetary gridlock and confusion, you just have to look at the latest set of polls. Three were issued in the last few weeks, two of them based on surveys taken since the November 2 election. Two contradict each other; one in effect contradicts itself.

But don’t blame the pollsters – or the politicians for that matter. It’s the voters who are ambivalent, stuck in denial and often ignorant of what the state spends most of its money on, and how. As always, in their priorities for cutting the deficit, now estimated at $25 billion in the next 20 months, and maybe a lot more, the voters far prefer spending cuts to tax increases. And as usual, if tax increases are unavoidable, tax somebody else.

But the voters have little idea what spending to cut. The easy target is prisons, but prisons account for just 10 percent of the budget. If you shut down all the prisons you’re still $8 billion short.  Even though they prefer to cut spending, they don’t want to cut spending on either K-12 or higher education, or on health care, which together represent far and away the largest share of the budget. If anything, they’d like to increase education spending.  

Nor do Californians favor higher tuition at the University of California and the California State University to protect funding, but again they’re not sure they want to pay higher taxes either. One poll showed a 49-49 split on willingness to pay higher taxes for higher education, a little better than a year ago (not surprising given this spring’s steep tuition increases, layoffs and class cuts,  and the certainty of more to come). But those numbers are hardly a bugle call to the legislature and governor.

And while respondents in last week’s report from PPIC, the Public Policy Institute of California, say they highly value protection of college and university funding, another report, also from PPIC and the Pew Center on the States, dated October, ranks higher education only third, far behind K-12 schools and Medicaid in the respondents’ priorities.

In the third of the three recent surveys, this one from Los Angeles Times/USC Poll, also released last week, the voters once again hit that old favorite: waste, fraud and abuse. “By nearly three to one,” said a poll summary, “they believe the budget can best be reduced by cutting waste and inefficiency rather than cutting programs like health care and education.”

Whenever you get that theory, whether it’s from voters or politicians, you have to wonder how much of that belief is based on ignorance and how much on a combination of sheer laziness and unwillingness to face the tough choices.

In October, well before the election, I lampooned what I described as Jerry Brown’s proposal  to conduct “a kind of free-floating statewide conversation, in essence a huge California encounter group, in which everybody –legislators, interest groups, and ordinary citizens -- would be asked to make choices about what services they wanted and what they’d be willing to pay for them.”

I’m now beginning to think that that might not be such a bad idea, particularly since Brown, in his prior incarnation as governor, was partly responsible for the post-Proposition 13 state bailout of local governments and the clouding of accountability that it produced. .

The bailout encouraged voters to believe, as Howard Jarvis, the chief author of Proposition 13, wanted them to believe, that the big property tax cuts they voted themselves in 1978 would do no great damage to schools and other public services.

The bailout also left the state as the chief revenue generator and the locals as the big spenders, which is probably the worst of all possible arrangements. It encourages fiscal irresponsibility in spending and fatally undermines the nexus for voters between good services and the taxes needed to support them.

Worse, once local governments were no longer able to raise property taxes, business groups and other fiscal conservatives began to lose interest in running, or funding candidates, for local office.

That left the field largely to teachers, cops, firefighters and other public sector unions. A considerable part – though hardly all -- of California’s problems with unfunded public employee pension and retiree health care benefits is a legacy both of the tax cuts and  the growing union domination of school boards and city councils that followed the passage of Proposition 13.

The recent polls in part reflect that decades-old confusion – though not all of it. It’s also been compounded by thirty-plus years of tinkering and attempted fixes – layer upon layer of tax cuts, spending formulas, term limits, and billions in unfunded voter-approved criminal sentencing mandates, park acquisitions, stem cell bonds, after-school child care programs and countless others that further confound the confusion.

The voters complain about the politicians not listening but the politicians perfectly reflect voters’ muddled thinking, which is why we’re stuck. The only thing the pols fail to do is lead.

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Peter Schrag, whose exclusive weekly column appears every Monday in the California Progress Report, is the former editorial page editor and columnist of the Sacramento Bee. He is the author of Paradise Lost: California’s Experience, America’s Future and California: America’s High Stakes Experiment. His new book, Not Fit for Our Society: Immigration and Nativism in America is now on sale. To reach Peter, email him at petersch@sonic.net.