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Poll paints bleak picture of California

Survey finds populace distrustful of state leaders, more positive on

September 11, 2009|Cathleen Decker

In a bleak assessment of their tarnished state, Californians say their government is untrustworthy, wastes money and performs for the benefit of the few and not for the bulk of the state's residents, a new poll has found.

The survey by the Public Policy Institute of California, a nonpartisan think tank, found that negative assessments of state government and its officials contrasted with far more positive views of the federal government and its leaders.

Overall, it suggested a populace beaten down by an endless cycle of budget disasters, now further complicated by a national recession, an implosion of housing prices and persistent unemployment. Among the signs of distress: Two-thirds expect bad economic times in the next year, while half said they fear job loss in their family.

"For the last year, the electorate has been saying that the state's going in the wrong direction, and they have been in an increasingly negative mood about the performance of their state government," said Mark Baldassare, the institute's president and a veteran California pollster.

As the economy and budget woes have worsened, he said, the public "has now lost confidence in their leadership, and we are seeing record levels of distrust in state government."

Among Californians overall, 73% said state government was run for the benefit of the few. Among those who vote most often, that number rose to 79%. Only 23% of Californians said they could trust the state government to "do what is right" most or all of the time. Three out of every five Californians said they believe that government wastes "a lot" of the money paid in taxes. Only 5% said there was little waste.

Although there was near-unanimity on state government's ills, proposed solutions were a different story.

Californians were much more apt to tackle what they saw as solutions to the budget process. Nearly two in three said they favored an annual cap on state spending, though a ballot measure to accomplish that lost last May.

Fifty-three percent said they favored dropping the legislative vote needed to pass the budget from the current two-thirds to 55%; only 38% disagreed.

They were willing to tinker around the edges of electoral reform, favoring changes to the term limits law that would allow legislators to spend more time in one house, and adjusting election rules so that the top two primary finishers -- rather than the top one in each party -- faced off in the general election.

But when it came to broader reforms being pressed by some activists -- including moves to call a constitutional convention to remake the state's organizing document -- Californians were more reluctant.

Asked whether the state's Constitution required "major" changes, only 33% said it did. More than a third, 36%, characterized needed changes as "minor." The findings, Baldassare said, suggests there has yet to be any pronounced public yearning for constitutional revision.

"People aren't looking for some sort of 'let's start over,' " he said.

Much of the reason for that is the public's confidence in its own power, the poll indicated. Almost six in 10 Californians, and a similar percentage of likely voters, said that decisions made by Californians through the initiative process were better than those made by the governor and Legislature.

They reaffirmed their support for Proposition 13, the 1978 measure that limited property taxes and ushered in the modern era of government-by-initiative. But they also remained open to reassessing commercial property at market rates -- the so-called "split roll" property tax approach.

The firm line between Californians' views of state and federal government was evident in favorability ratings. Gov. Arnold Schwarzenegger's popularity hovered at 30%, nearly the same as his PPIC poll record low of 28% in July. His disapproval hit a new high of 61%. President Obama, in contrast, was supported by almost two-thirds of Californians and opposed by 32%, a reversal of Schwarzenegger's standing. (Californians also favored both the healthcare changes being pushed by Obama and the creation of a public health insurance option.)

Similarly, the Legislature's approval was about half that of Congress.

Ratings for the state's Democratic senators, Dianne Feinstein and Barbara Boxer, were up compared with last year. Boxer, who is preparing to run for reelection next year, was favored by 53% of voters, up from the 44% last September. Feinstein's approval rating rose six points to 54%.

"To some degree, people are looking to Washington and saying . . . , 'They're trying to do something about the economy,' " Baldassare said. "I think that people are giving their federal elected officials an 'A' for effort."

The poll questioned 2,006 Californians from Aug. 26 to Sept. 2. The margin of sampling error is plus or minus two points

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cathleen.decker@latimes.com

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