California Gov. Jerry Brown talks about his budget during a press conference… (Lezlie Sterling//MCT )
From Sacramento — Gov. Jerry Brown has California voters right where he wants them — hating the notion of whacking schools even more than the prospect of paying a higher sales tax.
Meanwhile, ingrained American populism is flaring as the inequity gap widens between haves and have-nots. So voters absolutely love the idea of socking the rich with higher income taxes.
Total it all up, and the result is 68% support among likely voters for Brown's proposed November ballot initiative to raise taxes on sales and high-end income, and spend the money on K-12 schools and community colleges.
That's the key finding of a statewide poll just released by the nonpartisan Public Policy Institute of California.
"It's all tied together in a delicate balance," notes Mark Baldassare, the policy institute's president and pollster.
Brown's plan to wallop the well off — individuals earning $250,000, couples making $500,000 — pleases the middle class. Raising the sales tax, the governor hopes, will neutralize the business lobby, which mostly fears higher levies on specific industries, such as oil.
Threatening schools with nearly $5 billion in cuts if the tax hike isn't approved — a threat that apparently isn't idle — seems to worry almost everyone.
Based on the poll, 75% of voters oppose slashing schools — more than the 64% who object to raising the sales tax. Squeezing more taxes from the wealthy is favored by 68%.
There are still more than nine months remaining before Californians vote, of course. The poll was taken outside of a campaign context. It measured only initial attitudes.
"We're in a very good place. This is a good start," says Brown political strategist Steve Glazer. "It's a well-calibrated package."
The poll indicated that Californians may be prepared to have a big-picture debate this year about services they're willing to pay steeper taxes for and services they're not.
Voters are basically split over the general question of whether they'd rather pay higher taxes and receive more services, or pay lower taxes for fewer services.
But they lean toward the latter.
Nearly two-thirds say they'd pay higher taxes for K-12 schools, an echo of their support for Brown's proposal. But slightly less than a majority would dig deeper to maintain funding for universities and programs for the poor.
Yet, a majority, 51%, oppose Brown's proposed additional cuts in welfare, child care and healthcare.
Working for Brown as he tries to sell higher taxes is the poll finding that 60% of voters believe their local services and schools have been "affected a lot" by budget cutting in Sacramento.
Working against the governor, however, is a another finding: A majority of voters think the state could spend less and still provide the same level of services.
One intriguing discovery was that voters apparently favor a major tweak in Proposition 13, considered the third rail of California politics. Asked whether they thought commercial property should be taxed at current market value — which Prop. 13 doesn't allow until it's sold — 60% replied yes.
Baldassare says that stems from the populist movement. "It's part of the mood that corporations and the wealthy ought to be paying more taxes," he says.
But Jon Coupal, president of the Howard Jarvis Taxpayers Assn., asserts: "If anyone wants to put that on the ballot, more power to them. We'll beat it."
Emphasizing the tightrope Brown must walk with voters, nearly two-thirds showed their basic fiscal conservatism by saying they favored a strict spending limit on Sacramento. Former Gov. Arnold Schwarzenegger and the Legislature had placed a spending cap proposal on the November ballot, but Brown and the Legislature pulled it off last year.
Clearly, Brown and the Legislature will need to be on their best behavior to sell voters a tax increase.
And the governor can't count on lawmakers, whose latest self-destructive move this week was to sue the state controller over his docking of their pay when they failed to pass a balanced budget on time last June. These people are politically tone deaf.
In the poll, only 17% of voters approved of the way the Legislature is handling its job.
"This is why Brown has to go outside of Sacramento — outside of state government — to find support" for the tax plan, the pollster said. Community leaders, good government groups, chambers of commerce — Brown has been on the stump soliciting their help.
Brown's modest approval rating is holding up — 44%, compared with 47% after he first took office a year ago. His disapproval has leaped to 38% from 20%. But he still has some marketing ability.
"He's viewed as someone who's trying," Baldassare says. "There are still a lot of people on the fence about Jerry. But he's getting credit for effort."
This poll "suggests that he is being heard" by the public, Baldassare says. But his challenge will be "to prove that the money he says will go to schools really will go to schools and is not just some shell game.
"At the end of the day, a lot of people feel that government is not very efficient and they worry about giving it more money. That's where Jerry Brown will feel the head wind."
But right now he's feeling some tail wind.