California voters gave the state Legislature its highest marks in years despite a recent spate of political scandals that could put three Democratic lawmakers behind bars, according to a new USC Dornsife/Los Angeles Times poll.
Respondents were evenly split on lawmakers' performance, with 41% giving them a passing grade and 40% saying they were failing.
But those assessments were a significant improvement on the dismal 20% approval rating the Legislature earned five years ago, while wallowing in deficits and budget stalemates at the height of the recession.
Even as recently as March of last year, only 30% of voters said the Legislature was doing a good job, while 47% disapproved.
Still, a majority of voters said lawmakers cater more to special interests and campaign contributors than the people they represent — a criticism that held firm across all party lines. And an overwhelming majority — 84% — expressed concern about corruption in state government and most support efforts to temper the influence of money in the Capitol.
Among those polled, 68% attributed the scandals to an errant few rather than to any diseased political culture in the government. California's recovering economy and job market, combined with the electorate's general low regard of politicians, may have helped insulate the Legislature as a whole from blame.
"There are a few bad apples. You're concerned because you don't want it to be the person who represents you," said Marisa Hansen of San Jose, a teacher's union representative who took part in the poll. "But we also have some good strong leaders ... and the state is in much better shape now."
Hansen, a Democrat, strongly supports expulsion for legislators convicted of a crime — as do nine in 10 voters. She also supports a ban on legislators' taking gifts from lobbyists and other special interests, a measure backed by 77% of those polled.
Under current law, members of the Assembly or Senate can also be expelled for misconduct with a two-thirds vote of the chamber where they serve. Lobbyists are allowed to give lawmakers gifts worth $10 per month; lobbyist companies, their clients and others can bestow gifts worth up to $440 per year.
Jennifer Paulin, a Republican and retired high school teacher from Huntington Beach, blamed the scandals on the corrupting influence of power in politics.
Even though Democrats hold a firm political grip on Sacramento, they are not the only ones susceptible, she said. As a Republican, however, it's especially frustrating to belong to a party that lacks the influence to clean things up, she added.
To reduce the temptations of illicit behavior by those in office, Paulin favors barring lawmakers from raising campaign funds during the final weeks of the legislative session, when many critical decisions are made — a stance supported by 65% of those polled.
A smaller majority, 58%, supported a ban on fundraising during the entire legislative session. Both ideas were supported by Democrats and Republicans alike, as well as by voters with no party preference.
"I think there always will be corruption, no matter who is in office," said Paulin, 69, who supports Assemblyman Tim Donnelly (R-Twin Peaks) in the governor's race. "But the only way to change anything is to be actively involved."
Corruption was thrust into voter consciousness this past year with repeated images, in newspapers, online and in television newscasts, of FBI agents raiding lawmakers' offices or legislators being hauled into courtrooms.
In one case, state Sen. Leland Yee (D-San Francisco) is charged with accepting donations in return for favors and offering to arrange the sale of machine guns and other weapons to an undercover FBI agent posing as a mob figure.
That came after Sen. Ronald S. Calderon, a Democrat from Montebello, was indicted on bribery and money-laundering charges and Sen. Roderick D. Wright, who holds an Inglewood-based seat, was convicted of voter fraud and perjury for lying about living in the district.
The Senate has suspended all three legislators, with pay.
The scandals came at a particularly bad time for Democrats, who expect tough Republican challenges in a handful of closely matched legislative races in Tuesday's primary election.
Corruption may emerge as an issue in some district races, but it isn't likely to have a major effect on the Democrats' grip on Sacramento, said David Kanevsky of American Viewpoint, the Republican half of the bipartisan team that conducted the poll.
Although more Republicans than Democrats consider the entire system in Sacramento to be corrupt, a clear majority of Republicans — 60% — do not, and they blamed the scandals on a few bad legislators.
"Corrupt politicians, to a voter, is kind of a dog-bites-man story," Kanevsky said.
But the skepticism appears to be held in check: More poll respondents voiced resignation than anger when asked about the trio of legislators accused of wrongdoing.
Most voters do not seem to harbor a "throw the bums out" sentiment, said Drew Lieberman of Greenberg Quinlan Rosner, the Democratic polling firm.
"You can be concerned about corruption without saying the entire place is rotten, we've got to burn it to the ground," Lieberman said.
Tom Brothers, a graphic designer from Los Angeles who participated in the survey, said he was accustomed to hearing about politicians trying to "line their pockets."
"Unfortunately, there's not much that surprises me," said Brothers, who is registered to vote without a party affiliation.
The lawbreakers are just part of the problem. Most of the questionable behavior in Sacramento, he said, is perfectly legal.
The poll was conducted for the USC Dornsife College of Letters, Arts and Sciences and The Times. The survey team canvassed 1,511 registered California voters by telephone May 21-28. The margin of error is plus or minus 2.9 percentage points.
Times staff writer Patrick McGreevy contributed to this report.