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Polls illuminate Brown's path

His plan to balance the budget with taxes and cuts in roughly equal measure could win voter support.

January 17, 2011|George Skelton | Capitol Journal

From Sacramento — Gov. Jerry Brown must clear several hurdles before Californians will accept his tax plan to balance the state books. Four tactical moves will be particularly critical.

He'll need, based on polling, to:

-- Persuade voters that stanching the red ink in Sacramento is necessary to rebuild the California economy and create jobs.

-- Convince people that the tax money is needed to protect their top program priority, K-12 schools.

-- Show the electorate that the tax revenue won't be wasted, especially on state workers' pay and pensions.

-- Offer Republicans a juicy bone, such as a tight cap on spending that would last as long as the taxes existed.

Of course, he'll also need to coax or coerce Republican lawmakers into participating in the process of solving the state's deficit dilemma.

The minority party is balking both at helping Democrats place a tax proposal before the voters and at suggesting how to balance the budget with spending cuts alone. Republicans are trying to escape political pain and insisting it's the majority party's problem.

But assuming there is a special election in June, Brown's road map to success can be gleaned from a voter survey conducted by veteran Democratic pollster Jim Moore. So far, Brown is following the arduous path laid out by the polling.

To help close a seemingly bottomless budget hole estimated at $25.4 billion, Brown has proposed continuing what predecessor Arnold Schwarzenegger started: cutting employees' take-home pay by 8% to 10%.

But the new governor's budget plan protects K-12 schools from further cuts — unless voters reject his proposal to extend temporary increases in income, sales and car taxes for five years. Then schools would be hit hard.

Brown is doing the little symbolic things he has always loved that show his frugality. Last week, he ordered the seizure of half the state's cellphones. The last time he became governor, in 1975, he halted the state's practice of issuing briefcases to bureaucrats.

But Brown also is proposing deep slashes in healthcare, welfare and universities. Basically, he's proposing half cuts and half taxes to balance the ledger — as Republican Gov. Pete Wilson did 20 years ago.

Moore says his polling shows that voters "can afford the taxes. But they don't trust the state government to spend the money wisely. If Brown can overcome that suspicion, voters will be willing to extend the taxes."

The December poll of 1,000 likely voters was conducted for a small group of moderate-leaning Democratic lawmakers whose consultant is longtime political strategist David Townsend.

The poll's findings "are logical," Townsend says, "unless you come from some wacky leftwing or rightwing district."

The major findings:

-- One key to voter approval of tax extensions is to equate a healthy state budget with economic recovery.

California's state government always seems one step ahead of insolvency and has the lowest bond rating in the country. That hardly inspires private investor confidence. It also slows down the state's economic pump-priming with public works projects.

Two-thirds of those surveyed felt that the state's red-ink budgeting had hurt the California economy "a great deal." And by 3 to 1, voters considered jobs and the economy more important than social issues and the environment.

-- Most voters don't mind paying taxes for K-12 schools. Maybe even for healthcare, police and fire protection.

Asked whether they'd support the tax extensions to avoid up to 25% cuts in "schools, public safety and healthcare," 56% answered yes.

In a poll last May by the Public Policy Institute of California, 64% of likely voters said they'd pay higher taxes to protect school funding.

-- Brown needs to show that he really is eliminating government waste. People have an exaggerated view of its size, but the perception strongly influences their voting.

Moore found that, on average, voters think that 48% of their tax money is wasted. Two-thirds said they didn't trust Sacramento to spend wisely.

Asked whether they'd prefer "less government and lower taxes" or "slightly higher taxes for better government services," 57% opted for lower taxes. But when the question was rephrased and the second option was "better value for the taxes you currently pay," 72% opted for better value.

-- The governor must move swiftly on a pension overhaul, continuing the strides made by Schwarzenegger. Brown promised it during the election campaign. He didn't deliver it with the budget but vowed to later.

Rolling back pensions for future employees, which is about all that can be done, would have virtually no impact on the current budget. But Brown needs to show voters he's sincere.

Of those surveyed, 62% said public pensions are a "very serious issue." And 56% said both public pay and retirement benefits for most government workers are too high.

-- Brown should offer a sweetener: a spending cap that would prohibit new expenditures until the tax hikes expired.

In the poll, 84% favored creating a spending limit "to prevent future state budget crises."

"Make cuts and do a cap, then voters are OK with extending taxes," Townsend asserts.

-- But just extend the existing rates. Don't try to raise taxes above current levels.

When asked if they favored increasing taxes to balance the budget, 59% said no.

-- Voters are sick of dishonest budgeting. So far, Brown has shunned the gimmicky. That's a must, not only to repair the state but also to earn the support of a very cynical electorate.

Sixty percent of voters said the state's ills have been caused mostly by "poor budget planning." Only 16% blamed primarily the national recession.

Moore says Brown was shown the poll data last month.

The governor should keep following the road map. Be leery of hazardous detours.

george.skelton@latimes.com

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