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Times/USC Dornsife poll: Californians support tax hikes to help close budget gap

Respondents to the poll say they want to vote on Gov. Jerry Brown's revenue plan. The poll reflects a shift since last fall, when voters preferred using only spending cuts to close the deficit.

April 23, 2011|By Evan Halper, Los Angeles Times
  • Gov. Jerry Brown speaks at a news conference in Sacramento after signing a bill that cut billions in state services as a way to reduce the state's estimated $26-billion deficit. He hopes to raise revenue through taxes to close the remaining gap, a decision he hopes to put before voters in a fall ballot.
Gov. Jerry Brown speaks at a news conference in Sacramento after signing… (Bloomberg )

Reporting from Sacramento — California voters agree with Gov. Jerry Brown that tax increases should help close the state budget deficit, and they want to vote on his plan for raising the revenue, according to a new Times/USC Dornsife poll.

The Democratic governor has been traveling the state to tout his proposal for a balance of spending reductions and tax increases since it stalled in the Legislature last month amid a bitter battle with Republicans. He had wanted an election in June on a renewal of several tax increases that will have expired by July 1, but he now hopes for a vote in the fall.

Sixty percent of those surveyed, including majorities of both Democrats and Republicans, said they back such an election. The alternative being pushed by most GOP lawmakers — forgoing an election and balancing the budget by cutting more from state services — was supported by just 33%.

Support for the cuts-only approach dropped to 25% when voters were informed that it would probably require reductions in school funding, according to the survey conducted for The Times and the USC Dornsife College of Letters, Arts and Sciences.

Interactive: Try your hand at balancing the state budget

The findings reflect a significant shift in Californians' attitudes about how to approach the deficit. In November, 44% wanted the budget balanced with spending cuts alone.

"It looks like Jerry Brown has successfully reframed the discussion," said Dan Schnur, director of the Jesse M. Unruh Institute of Politics at USC and a former GOP political consultant. "Spending cuts are OK to people in the abstract, but when you get specific they start to get scared."

Voters clearly do not want the taxes extended without their say, however. A majority, 53%, said they opposed reinstating the levies through legislative action alone, an approach suggested by Democratic leaders. The Legislature and governor do not need voters' consent to raise taxes, but Brown has promised to seek it.

Brown and lawmakers have already reduced a $26-billion deficit by about $11 billion, largely by cutting programs. The governor wants the taxes to fill most of the remaining gap.

Brown "seems to be reflecting the mood of the state pretty well in terms of how to handle the deficit," said Democratic pollster Stanley Greenberg of Greenberg Quinlan Rosner, one of two firms that conducted the bipartisan poll.

Although the budget crisis has dominated the news for years, the survey found that few people have as firm a grasp on the details as they believe. Some 75% of respondents said they were following the budget debate, yet only 16% were aware that state spending has shrunk by billions of dollars over the last three years.

Nearly half thought the budget had grown in that period, with more than 1 in 4 saying it was "much bigger." In fact, general fund spending went from $103 billion in the 2007-08 budget year to $92.2 billion in the current year.

Voters who were aware that the budget had contracted were least likely to want the deficit closed with cuts alone; only 12% of them supported that approach.

Among all voters, there was little appetite for the specific spending reductions lawmakers are making to tame the deficit. Cuts in welfare grants and healthcare programs for poor children, both of which have already been approved, were backed by just 26%. Cuts in higher education, also already enacted, were favored by 42%, and among Latinos, support for higher education reductions dropped precipitously, to 28%.

The only cuts favored by large majorities were those with minimal effects on the deficit — reductions in government worker benefits and perks, for example.

Still, Greenberg cautioned that "it would be a tough battle to pass" the tax proposal should Brown win the handful of Republican legislative votes needed to place a measure on the ballot. The governor's plan calls for renewing increases in vehicle license fees and sales taxes that will expire this summer and an income tax hike that ended months ago.

Voters rejected an extension of the tax hikes two years ago, and Brown's own advisors acknowledge that it is more difficult to persuade voters to back fresh taxes than existing ones.

Among poll participants who would like the opportunity to vote on Brown's plan was Anton Fleig, 59, a software engineer in Santa Cruz and a registered Democrat.

"It is unconscionable to cut some of these programs when disparity of wealth is what it is," he said. "It is just morally wrong…. I would rather have less money in my pocket."

Crystal Brown, 61, a Republican and a teacher in Pasadena, said she worried that her district would face yet more budget cuts if taxes are not raised.

"I already have a hard time just getting pencils for my classroom," she said, predicting more furlough days and layoffs if the state does not start collecting more revenue.

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