California Gov. Jerry Brown, left, walks to a press conference as press… (Wally Skalij / Los Angeles…)
SACRAMENTO — Californians are growing more optimistic about the direction of the state and its finances even as they continue to struggle with a sour economy, a new USC Dornsife/Los Angeles Times poll shows.
The recent passage of Gov. Jerry Brown's tax increases on the ballot, averting a fresh round of bruising cuts to public education, appears to account for some of the shift in attitude.
Fifty-four percent of registered state voters said California is moving in the right direction on its budget, and Brown's approval rating has ticked up a few points to 49% — the highest since his 2010 election.
The number of respondents saying the state is on the right track has more than doubled since they were asked in August 2011. Still, amid persistent double-digit unemployment and other underlying economic problems, that remains the view of a minority, only 38%.
Similarly, the number who say the state economy is finally beginning to improve has almost doubled since July 2011, but those voters are also in the minority, just 43%.
Job losses, salary cuts and other financial troubles continue to affect Californians and their families at roughly the same levels as a year ago, the poll found.
"We started in an unbelievable hole. It's been a tough road back to where we are now," said Stan Greenberg, of the Democratic polling firm Greenberg Quinlan Rosner Research. The company conducted the poll with American Viewpoint, a Republican firm.
The USC Dornsife College of Letters, Arts and Sciences/Los Angeles Times poll canvassed 1,520 registered voters by telephone from Nov. 7-12. The margin of error is 2.9 percentage points.
The polling ended two days before the Legislature's top financial advisor delivered upbeat news on the state budget, saying California could see surpluses in a few years even though it still has long-term fiscal problems to resolve.
The increase in voter optimism comes after a wave of Democratic victories on election day. In addition to President Obama's reelection and the governor's win on tax hikes, Democrats are poised for supermajorities in both houses of the California Legislature. A two-thirds vote in each chamber is needed to raise taxes.
Noam Meppen, 37, a San Diego sales manager, praised Brown for taking a "pragmatic and balanced approach" to the budget.
A Democrat, he voted for the taxes because "it's important to have a strong education system." If the tax increases had been rejected, nearly $6 billion would have been cut from the budget, mostly from public schools.
Among voters who cast ballots in favor of Proposition 30, the desire to protect schools from more spending cuts was the primary motivation, the poll showed.
Others remain steadfastly opposed to higher taxes. Eric Willis, a 35-year-old investor who lives in Los Angeles, said California is headed in a direction that makes him "sick."
"I can't remember a time the state was doing anything right," said Willis, a Republican. "Our taxes never go down, they only go up."
David Kanevsky of American Viewpoint noted that pervasive dissatisfaction could help Republicans, who suffered steep losses on election day, make a comeback if things don't go well in Sacramento. Since Democrats are expected to control the Capitol unilaterally, they'll shoulder all of the blame if the state's finances don't continue to improve.
"Republicans need to hold Democrats accountable," he said. "That's the start of a path to relevancy."
He noted that voters still want Brown to toe a tough line on spending.
Unemployment in California has remained among the highest in the country, even though it dropped to 10.1% last month. Thirty-four percent of poll respondents said the loss of a job had affected them or their families in the past year.
Forty percent said they or someone in their family had been hit with salary cuts or a reduction in work hours.
Mike Cashara, 52, of Calaveras County goes door-to-door helping mortgage companies keep tabs on foreclosed houses.
"I've seen a lot of people struggling," said Cashara, a Republican. "I've had friends who lost houses."
Overall, he has little faith in his political leaders.
"I love the state, and I love the weather," he said. "It just seems like the taxation is pushing people out."
On the other hand, Marilyn Ponseggi, 56, of San Diego County said things are getting back to normal. A Democrat, she works as a city planner in Chula Vista.
"Our office is a lot busier and has a lot more activity," she said. "When we get busier, it's a good sign."