Capitol Journal

Why are California legislators getting decent approval ratings? They're getting things done

The California Legislature has achieved something I never expected to see again in my lifetime. Its public job approval rating has soared above 50%.

That’s astronomical compared with the lawmakers’ wretched ratings of a few years ago.

Of course, the latest polling was conducted before the Legislature raised gas taxes and vehicle registration fees by $5.2 billion a year.

“That’s not a good-news type of thing,” notes Mark DiCamillo, polling director of the UC Berkeley Institute of Governmental Studies. “It’s the kind of thing that irritates voters.”

But the tax hike to pay for repairing California’s sorry roads was long overdue and showed guts, at least by the Democrats and one deal-making Republican who voted for it Thursday night.

Unlike the gridlocked, Republican-controlled Congress, the Democrat-dominated state Legislature exhibited an ability to pass significant, controversial legislation that required a supermajority vote.

“It’s the most important bill we’ll have before us this session,” Assembly Speaker Anthony Rendon (D-Paramount) told colleagues during the floor debate.

DiCamillo’s UC poll, reported last week, found that 57% of California’s registered voters approve of the Legislature’s job performance, with 43% disapproving.

That’s almost up there in the Gov. Jerry Brown stratosphere. His numbers were 61% approval, 39% disapproval — the highest DiCamillo has recorded for Brown during his second gubernatorial reign.

For the Legislature, it’s the highest popularity rating found by DiCamillo since 1988. Its standing was down to 14% approval, 76% disapproval just seven years ago during the recession.

Another poll, by the Public Policy Institute of California, found numbers similar to UC Berkeley’s last month. It reported 51% job approval for the Legislature.

The poll results mirror current political polarization. In the UC survey, 77% of Democrats approved of the Legislature’s performance, as did 56% of independents. But 77% of Republicans disapproved.

The overall numbers reflect how far the GOP has fallen in this former swing state. Democrats outnumber Republicans by roughly 45% to 26% in voter registration, with independents approaching 25%.

That largely explains why President Trump, in the UC poll, had the lowest initial job approval among Californians of any new president in many decades. It was 39% approval, 61% disapproval. In the PPIC survey, it was worse: 35%-62% among likely voters.

Congress’ rating was even more pathetic in the policy institute’s poll: 27% approval, 68% disapproval.

All these ugly images of the Republican president and Congress as seen by blue-state Californians have enhanced their positive view of the Democratic Legislature. At least that’s my theory.

Trump’s contentious actions and egocentric behavior have crystallized government and politics in the minds of Californians and focused more attention on Washington and, to a lesser degree, Sacramento.

The contrast is accentuated whenever a California Democrat speaks out against the divisive president. And there are plenty resisting him, especially on illegal immigration.

“The single most effective way to become a popular politician in California is to not be named ‘Trump,’ ” says former Republican strategist-turned-independent professor Dan Schnur of the USC Annenberg School for Communication and Journalism.

“No one is completely satisfied with their lot in life, so the natural tendency is to blame the politicians,” he says. “But when those politicians are criticizing Donald Trump, the voter feels a little bit better about them.”

Updates from Sacramento »

Mark Baldassare, president and pollster for the PPIC, points out that not even California Republicans are wild about Congress. Meanwhile, Democrats and independents are really sour on it. “There’s a positive comparison for the Legislature,” he says.

But UC Berkeley’s DiCamillo calls all this “speculative” and says, “I wouldn’t go too far.”

Both he and Baldassare point out that the economy is performing well and that Californians — at least Democrats — feel good about the state’s direction. That makes them happier about the Legislature and governor.

Also — arguably most important — the Legislature has quit shaming itself with summerlong bickering budget brawls.

In 2010, Californians approved a ballot initiative allowing the Legislature to pass a state budget on a simple majority vote, rather than two-thirds. And it required lawmakers to pass a spending plan by June 15 or lose their pay. That took care of the procrastination and paralysis.

And passage of the highway tax bill showed an ability to play old-fashioned, practical politics. Backroom deals have always been the backbone of effective legislating.

In this case, the deal was cut in the governor’s historic mansion with Brown, Rendon and Senate leader Kevin de León (D-Los Angeles) negotiating with Sen. Anthony Cannella of Ceres, a moderate Republican whose vote was needed for passage.

What Cannella wrangled out of those Democratic leaders was good for the northern San Joaquin Valley and, in fact, was a model for the entire state.

Cannella got $400 million to extend a Bay Area commuter train roughly 30 miles southward from just below Stockton to Merced. That will allow people to live in the senator’s relatively low-cost district and commute by rail to jobs in unaffordable San Jose and Silicon Valley.

During floor debates in both houses, there were the usual eye-roll-inducing trite recitations of political talking points, interjected with a few thoughtful observations. One of the latter came from Assemblyman Adam Gray (D-Merced), whose district will benefit from the commuter train.

After accusing both sides of being “intellectually dishonest,” Gray concluded: “Is this a perfect bill? No. But we have to make imperfect choices and compromise.”

That’s how effective democracy works. And one reason this Legislature is outshining Congress.

george.skelton@latimes.com

Follow @LATimesSkelton on Twitter

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