Sacramento’s Mixed Fiscal Message
By Peter Schrag
So was it a threat or just a statement of hard facts? The “it” here was the Field Poll’s finding last week that 72 percent of voters don’t approve of the school budget cuts that would automatically follow failure of Gov. Jerry Brown’s tax increase measure on the November ballot.
Did the voters disapprove because they saw the school cuts as a threat – what Dan Schnur, director of the Jesse Unruh Institute of Politics at the University of Southern California, called “the most expensive ransom note in California history”?
Did it mean that 19 percent of us who said we approve of the school cuts like cutting school funding (9 percent had no opinion)? And if voters were reacting to a perceived threat, why did a significantly greater percentage of Republicans react positively to the Brown proposal than did Democrats (22 percent to 14 percent)?
The question in full: “If voters do not pass the Governor’s proposed tax increase initiative in November, this would trigger automatic spending cuts to the state budget, with most of the cuts coming out of the budget for the k-12 schools. Do you favor or oppose these cuts as a way to balance the state budget if the Governor’s tax proposal is not approved?”
“It’s not something that voters think is a great way to do public policy. It’s almost like holding a gun to their heads,” Field Poll Director Mark DiCamillo told the Riverside Press-Enterprise. “If there is a shortage, they would prefer (lawmakers) come back after the election and deal with it.” A few months ago, Brown’s opponents would have called that kicking the can down the road.
Put a little differently, DiCamillo would be right. The voters, who want nice services without having to pay the taxes they require, don’t like being confronted with reality. But when half the state’s budget goes to education, it’s hard to imagine how you’d fill an $8 billion hole without cutting schools or the University of California and the California State University, which would also lose $250 million each.
Presumably if Field had asked about shutting down all the state’s prisons to balance the budget it might have gotten a more favorable response, at least from Democrats. A complete shutdown of prisons would just about fill the hole that will be left if the Brown tax increase is voted down.
In any case, the second set of poll numbers Field released last week indicated that if the school budget-cutting scenario was supposed to be an inducement, it wasn’t working very well. Some 54 percent of voters said they support the Brown tax proposal – an income tax increase on those earning over $250,000 and a small boost of the sales tax; 35 percent said they oppose it.
Given the likely erosion in support between now and November that 54 percent is hardly grounds for confidence. The 18 point difference between the 54 percent for the taxes, moreover, and the 72 percent opposing the school budget cuts is as likely to be a gauge of the voters’ reality gap as it is a measure of their resentment of Brown’s purported threat. It may also be an indication of the ambiguity of the Field question.
Not that Brown is entirely blameless. He’s himself been engaged in confusing the voters. Last week’s second set of poll numbers indicated that his tax increase would lose support if planning – and spending of bond funds – on the state’s high-speed train project proceeded.
On the one hand, Sacramento is pleading desperate poverty and warning (correctly) about its damaging effects on the state’s already badly underfunded schools and colleges. The legislature has already approved a bill allowing districts to cut the school year from 175 days (already down from 180 days) to 160 days, the lowest in the nation, if the tax fails.
On the other it’s preparing to spend $4.6 billion in bond money (another $3 billion will come from Washington) –a bond approved by the voters themselves – on a project with a history of mismanagement that’s as fiscally uncertain as it is ambitious, even grandiose, and whose public support has grown ever more shaky since the bond was voted. It’s hard to project visions of a shiny high-tech future while you’re strangling education at the same moment.
Not surprisingly, Republicans in Sacramento have been quick to fire off press releases exploiting those contradictions. Last week they voted unanimously against the project, despite warnings from the feds that if the state didn’t start work on the first 130-mile section of the system -- the San Joaquin Valley leg from Madera to Bakersfield, it would lose the federal money that had been committed to it.
Ultimately the plan to start the first leg passed by a whisker – there were just 21 yes votes in the Senate last Friday, the barest majority in the 40-member chamber (There’s also a sweetener in the form of money for mass transit in Los Angeles and San Francisco).
All of it was sold on hope for the jobs the projects will generate and the promised gratitude of millions of future Californians. But for the present, it badly confuses the message. That, too, is very Jerry.
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: Nativism, Eugenics, Immigration is now on sale. View his archived columns here.