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THE TIMES POLL : Voters Evenly Split Over Proposal to Cut Welfare : Propositions: Term-limit measure has wide support in state. Contests close on euthanasia and tax increases.


Californians are evenly divided over Proposition 165, Gov. Pete Wilson's proposal to cut welfare and strengthen his budget powers, and the measure's fate may hinge on which party does a better job on voter turnout, according to The Los Angeles Times Poll.

Wilson's fellow Republicans back the initiative by more than 2 to 1 while Democrats oppose it by the same lopsided ratio, a statewide survey showed. So the partisan composition of the electorate next Tuesday probably will determine whether the hotly contested measure passes or fails.

At the same time, Wilson's ability to attract support for the measure is weakened by his basic unpopularity. The governor's job rating inched downward and hit a new all-time low in this survey, with only 29% approving of his performance in Sacramento and 62% disapproving.

The Times Poll also found very close contests over two other ballot measures: Proposition 161, to allow doctor-assisted suicide and euthanasia, and Proposition 167, to increase taxes on business and the wealthy.

But voters overwhelmingly support Proposition 164, to impose term limits on members of Congress, by a 2-to-1 ratio--a margin of 33 percentage points. They also favor Proposition 166, to require firms to provide health insurance for its employees, by a 14-point margin.

There remains a lot of confusion about most of these measures, however, and many voters may not firm up their decisions until Election Day.

For example, until Proposition 167 was explained to people by Times Poll interviewers, nearly three-fourths did not know enough about it to offer an opinion. The situation was similar with nearly two-thirds of those surveyed on Proposition 166, more than half on Proposition 165, nearly half on Proposition 161, and 4 in 10 on Proposition 164. Only on term limits do most voters seem to have made up their minds.

After people were read a summary of each proposal, together with some pro and con arguments, these were the results among registered voters:

Proposition 161, euthanasia--For 49%, against 45%, undecided 6%.

Proposition 164, term limits--For 61%, against 28%, undecided 11%.

Proposition 165, welfare-budget--For 42%, against 43%, undecided 15%.

Proposition 166, health insurance--For 49%, against 35%, undecided 16%.

Proposition 167, taxes--For 42%, against 44%, undecided 14%.

Counting only voters considered likely to cast ballots made a slight difference on two of the measures. The euthanasia proposal was down by three points among likely voters, instead of being up by four. And the tax proposal was down by seven points, instead of by two.

The Times Poll, directed by John Brennan, interviewed 1,110 registered voters by telephone Oct. 20-23. Because of the length of the questionnaire, which also included an extensive survey on the presidential and Senate races, the voter sample was split for the proposition questions. Half of those interviewed were asked about three propositions and the rest were queried about the other two measures. The margin of error for all voters interviewed is three percentage points; for the split sample it is five points.

Wilson's ability to attract votes for his political causes--including passage of Proposition 165 and Republican takeover of the state Assembly--clearly is handicapped by his unpopularity after less than two years in office. After Wilson raised taxes by a record amount in his first year and set a record for spending cuts in his second, following a record-length budget gridlock, his job approval also has hit a record low.

Voters who especially disapprove of the governor's job performance--besides liberals and Democrats--include philosophical moderates, women, those under age 45 and residents of the San Francisco Bay Area. Wilson derives his biggest support from fellow Republicans, but even within the GOP, only roughly half approve of the way he is handling his duties.

Still, the voters' regard for how the Legislature has been doing its job is even lower: Just 13% approve, while 74% disapprove. Democratic lawmakers control the Legislature, but even two-thirds of Democratic voters disapprove of the institution's performance.

The electorate's anti-incumbent attitude today is stronger than two years ago when voters imposed legislative term limits by passing Proposition 140. During the fall of 1990, 46% of the registered voters interviewed by The Times Poll said the Assembly member representing their district deserved to be reelected. In this latest survey, only 35% felt that way. Another 30% believed their Assembly incumbents should not be returned to Sacramento and 35% were not sure.

Regarding members of Congress, only 37% said the local incumbent deserved to be reelected. Another 30% did not think so and 33% weren't sure.

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