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The Times Poll : Highway Bond Issue Faces Rough Road

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Times Sacramento Bureau Chief

Gov. George Deukmejian faces a hard sell in trying to convince reluctant voters that they should approve his $1-billion transportation bond issue that would change California’s historic “pay-as-you-go” method of building highways, The Los Angeles Times Poll has found.

Californians now are divided on the issue, with people likely to vote in the June 7 primary splitting 41% for the proposal, 39% against and 20% undecided, the survey showed.

Political ‘Reform’ Support

On another ballot measure, voters appear to be lining up solidly behind a citizens’ political “reform” initiative, Proposition 68. It is favored by more than 2 to 1 with 56% for, 23% against, 21% undecided.

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But, by nearly 2 to 1, voters are shying away from Supt. of Public Instruction Bill Honig’s proposal to raise the state spending limit. His Proposition 71 is favored by 27%, opposed by 51% and 22% are undecided.

Looking beyond the primary toward the November election, Republican U.S. Sen. Pete Wilson is running 12 percentage points ahead of his expected Democratic challenger, Lt. Gov. Leo T. McCarthy. But this is a race voters clearly are not focusing on yet. The figures are Wilson 36%, McCarthy 24%, and undecided 40%.

The Times poll also asked voters what they think of controversial Assembly Speaker Willie Brown (D-San Francisco), whose legislative leadership recently has been under attack from a rebel D1701670755Republicans. The voters’ view of Brown was not positive, with only 31% holding a favorable impression, 34% having an unfavorable impression and 35% not sure.

But the voters’ impression of the Legislature itself generally was positive: 46% favorable, 23% unfavorable and 31% not sure.

The Times poll, directed by I. A. Lewis, interviewed 2,202 Californians by telephone during a six-day period from May 11-16. Of those questioned, 1,486 were considered likely to vote in the primary election, and the margin of error for these was 3% in either direction.

Political Prestige

Deukmejian has staked some of his political prestige on the highway bond issue, the first step in a $2.3-billion, five-year plan to increase spending on California transportation projects by 40%.

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If the interest-bearing bonds are approved, it would mark the first time in modern California history that highway construction has been financed by all taxpayers, not just motorists. Since virtually the moment the state began building roads for automobiles, all projects have been financed on a “pay-as-you-go” basis through “user taxes,” such as levies on gasoline and truck weights.

Critics of Proposition 74 contend that California should increase the gasoline tax to pay for needed highway construction because, among other things, it is a waste of money to shell out interest on bonds. But the Republican governor argues that the fuel tax unfairly burdens low-income motorists. And since all Californians benefit from improved transportation, he contends, all taxpayers--not just motorists--should foot the bill for construction.

The big challenge facing Deukmejian, obviously, is to persuade Californians that the state should borrow money and pay interest in order to build roads and finance other transportation projects. But when the Times poll asked voters whether they would prefer to see state construction projects financed “by tax dollars on a pay-as-you-go basis,” or by “bonds that cost more because they carry interest rates,” the answer overwhelmingly, by 2 1/2 to 1, was “pay as you go.”

4-3 Ratio Against Measure

As might be expected, people who prefer the “pay-as-you-go” method--and they include Republicans and Democrats alike--oppose Proposition 74 by a 4-3 ratio. Conversely, the minority of people who prefer bond financing support the governor’s measure by more than 2 to 1.

In an effort to promote his proposal to harried commuters, the governor recently rode the San Diego Freeway in a motor home during the morning rush and provided traffic updates along with campaign pitches to drivers listening in on their car radios.

The Times poll indicated that the governor perhaps should lobby commuters some more. Throughout the state, people who take between 20 and 50 minutes to get to work support Proposition 74 by a 17-point margin, the survey showed. But people who commute only 10 to 20 minutes each way are divided on the issue.

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City residents generally and people who live in Los Angeles and Orange counties support the governor’s proposal. Opposed are people who live in small towns and rural areas, particularly the Central Valley. The undecided include people who do not commute regularly and those over age 65.

Voters who think that traffic congestion is the worst problem created by urban growth--and this is the adverse spinoff of development named over all others--support Proposition 74 by 4 to 3.

Favor Light Rail Lines

Asked “the best way to improve traffic congestion,” the top choice of those surveyed was “more light rail lines.” And people who feel this way favor Proposition 74 slightly. But those who prefer “more bus transportation,” the second choice, tend to lean against the measure. Interestingly, “more freeways” rated only in the middle of the pack of suggested solutions. But those who advocate more highways are among the proposition’s biggest supporters.

Whether voters support Proposition 74 also seems to be tied to how they feel about Deukmejian himself. For the most part, people have a positive impression of the governor--65% favorable, 27% unfavorable, 8% not sure. Those with favorable attitudes toward Deukmejian support Proposition 74 by a margin of nine points; those with unfavorable views oppose it by 13 points.

Ten years ago next month, Californians overwhelmingly approved another ballot measure--the landmark Proposition 13 that substantially reduced property taxes. Voters in this survey were asked what they regard as “the final, lasting result” of the measure, and the leading responses were “government services have been cut back permanently” and “other taxes have been raised to make up the difference.”

Still, voters generally continue to feel good about Proposition 13. Their impression of it is 52% favorable, 27% unfavorable and 21% not sure.

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Not Paying Attention

In the U.S. Senate campaign, one indication that voters are not paying much attention is that 40% did not know enough about Democrat McCarthy to have an opinion of him. The others divided 37% favorable and 23% unfavorable. Wilson, who has served in the Senate for six years, was not much better known, with 34% expressing no view. The remaining voters generally liked the Republican incumbent. Their attitudes were 49% favorable and 17% unfavorable.

By region, McCarthy’s biggest support comes from the San Francisco Bay Area, his home base. Wilson, the former mayor of San Diego, is running best in Southern California outside of Los Angeles County.

Another sign that McCarthy basically is unknown, despite his having successfully run twice for lieutenant governor, is that he is drawing only about a third of the Democratic vote, with a quarter going to Wilson. But Republican Wilson is getting only half the GOP vote, with more than a third undecided.

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