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Wilson Backed in Welfare Cuts for Newcomers

TIMES SACRAMENTO BUREAU CHIEF

Californians support Gov. Pete Wilson’s efforts to limit welfare benefits for new residents of the state, but they seem inclined to oppose further cuts in aid for poor people already living here, the Los Angeles Times Poll has found.

The statewide survey indicated that the Republican governor, whose popularity has continued to slip, probably is wise politically to try “to decrease the magnet-effect of California’s welfare system"--as he describes his goal--by curtailing benefits for new arrivals. But a broader attack on the welfare system, as he is mounting, will be tougher to sell to the public and probably will divide the state, the poll indicated.

If nothing else, however, Wilson’s new assault on welfare could help shore up his political base within the Republican Party, whose conservative activists have denounced the new governor for raising taxes, not cutting spending more, favoring abortion rights and being relatively pro-environment. Conservatives tend to favor cutting welfare benefits and many Republicans do too.

Among the poll’s findings are that two-thirds of the public would deny welfare benefits to residents until they have lived here three years--a far more drastic concept than Wilson’s proposal--and that two-thirds regard foreign immigrants as a “burden” on the economy. At the same time, immigration and welfare are mere blips on the public’s list of the most important problems facing the state. By far the biggest concern is the economy and jobs.

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Nearly seven in 10 people believe that California is “seriously off on the wrong track” rather than “going in the right direction.”

Also, there is continued, overwhelming opposition to the notion of cutting funds for public schools--so much so that Wilson, after a failed attempt last spring, has given up trying to reduce mandatory state funding for elementary and secondary education.

The Times Poll, directed by John Brennan, interviewed 1,629 randomly selected California adults by telephone for four days ending Tuesday night. The margin of error is three percentage points in either direction.

People were not asked specifically about Wilson’s ambitious welfare proposals because the poll already was well under way before he outlined them on Monday and Tuesday in campaign-style events. But the governor had been building up to the proposals for weeks in his public utterances about immigration and welfare. So The Times Poll included welfare questions in its survey, which was aimed, among other things, at measuring the popularity of Wilson and the Legislature and ascertaining the public’s preferences for resolving yet another looming state budget crisis.

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After having thought they had solved a $14.3-billion budget deficit last July with tax increases, spending cuts and accounting gimmicks, the governor and the Legislature now find they are facing another, recession-driven shortfall in the $5-billion to $7-billion range for the current and next budget years. And the public appears to have no more of a clear idea of how to resolve the problem than do the elected representatives in Sacramento.

People were deeply divided when asked whether cuts in services or tax increases were “the best solution.” Thirty-five percent favored mostly cutting services, 28% wanted mostly tax hikes and 24% advocated both equally. The rest weren’t sure. This was a politically partisan issue, with Republicans favoring service cuts by 2 to 1 over higher taxes, and Democrats supporting tax hikes over program reductions by 4 to 3.

Wilson has vowed not to raise taxes again.

Those interviewed mirrored their elected representatives in having a tough time choosing which programs to cut. Eight in 10 opposed reducing funds for public schools. The same number also opposed cutting teachers’ salaries. But there was much less opposition to cutting the pay of state workers; only about half the people rejected that, and Wilson is trying to do it.

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Half the people also opposed reducing funds for prisons, which the governor now is advocating; 38% favored it.

The public traditionally has a soak the rich attitude and it showed up again in this survey. Nearly two-thirds said they would support a limitation on tax deductions for mortgage interest involving homes costing more than $750,000, and on second homes. This idea has been discussed and discarded in the past. It is not currently active in Sacramento.

Those interviewed also said that “rich people not paying their fair share of taxes” are as big a problem for the state treasury as “people on welfare getting benefits they don’t deserve.” Thirty-one percent cited the rich, 31% pointed to welfare recipients and 31% blamed both equally. This is another clearly partisan issue, with Republicans faulting welfare recipients and Democrats criticizing the rich.

Three-fourths objected to any reductions in health care for the poor. And a majority--56%--opposed “further cuts in welfare benefits for low-income people.”

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The governor and Legislature last July cut welfare benefits by 4.4%, the first time this ever had happened in California. On Tuesday, Wilson advocated another 4.5% rollback in aid for welfare families. The day before, he proposed an initiative for next November’s ballot that, among other far-reaching things, would cut some family welfare benefits by nearly 25%. The measure also would prohibit poor families moving into California from receiving welfare benefits higher than they had qualified for in the state they left, until they lived here for a year.

But although the public generally opposes further cuts in welfare benefits, the survey found that a much more Draconian residency requirement than proposed by Wilson is favored by virtually every socioeconomic, political and ethnic group--rich and poor, college graduate and high school dropout, Republican and Democrat, Anglo and Latino, young and old. They all supported “a law that would prohibit any new resident of California from receiving state welfare assistance until that person had lived in the state for a period of three years.”

Wilson has not specifically targeted foreign immigrants in his latest proposals, but clearly many Californians have immigrants in mind when they think of welfare rolls. A majority of those interviewed thought that at least half the foreign immigrants go on welfare when they land in California--a gross exaggeration of the actual situation, according to state officials.

Virtually every socioeconomic, political and ethnic group also regarded the new foreign immigrants as “a burden on the state’s economy” rather than “an overall boost” for the economy.

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The public was more divided over the question of whether foreign immigrants take away jobs from people already living here. Forty-six percent said immigrants get “jobs that nobody wants,” but 39% believed they “take jobs away from Californians who need them.” Blacks particularly felt the job competition.

Concerning the budget deficit, though people have a tough time identifying any cuts in services that they could support, they find it even harder to accept the idea of another tax increase. By a ratio of more than 2 to 1, they said that “the greater danger for California right now” is that “taxes have been raised to the point where people can’t handle the burden,” rather than that “state spending has been cut to the point where essential government programs and services are threatened.”

And six in 10 said they are angry about last July’s tax increases, especially the new tax on snack foods.

Politically, Wilson seems to have kicked off his new anti-welfare, budget-balancing drive none too soon. According to this poll, people give the edge to the Democratic controlled Legislature over the Republican governor for doing the better job of trying to resolve the state’s fiscal dilemma.

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The governor now has even a slightly worse job rating than he had in October, just after he vetoed a controversial homosexual rights bill. In the latest poll, only 36% approved of the way Wilson is handling his job as governor and 54% disapproved. Two months ago, in a similar Times survey, his approval-disapproval rating was 39%-46%. But last May, riding a crest of popularity before having to make tough budget decisions, the new governor enjoyed a job performance rating of 52% approval, 34% disapproval--almost the reverse of the present situation.

The Legislature, which has been rocked by political corruption scandals, is overall even more unpopular than the governor, even though it is given slightly higher marks for budget work. Just 28% approve of its job performance and 57% disapprove.

Working against Wilson is the recession, which has people worried and is reducing the state’s projected tax revenues. The proportion of people thinking that California is “seriously off on the wrong track” has grown from six in 10 in October to nearly seven in 10 today.

Even more telling, twice as many people now say that either the economy or unemployment is the state’s “most important problem.” In the latest survey, it is 35%; in October it was just 16%. No other issue--not crime, education or the environment--even comes close as a pressing concern.

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And who bears most of the responsibility for solving the state’s economic problems? According to the people interviewed in this poll, it is the Legislature, Congress, President Bush and Gov. Wilson--in that order.

The Times Poll

The Times Poll asked a statewide sample of adult Californians how they feel about Gov. Pete Wilson, his efforts to limit welfare benefits and various proposals to help solve the state’s budget crisis. Here are some of the findings:

Do you approve or disapprove of the job Wilson is doing?

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% Approve % Disapprove May ’91 52% 34% Oct. ’91 39% 46% Now 36% 54%

Do you favor or oppose various options to reduce the state budget deficit?

% Favor % Oppose Limit high-end mortgage 65% 25% interest deductions Ask state employees 43% 49% to take a salary cut Reduce funding for 38% 51% state prisons Make further cuts 36% 56% in welfare benefits Reduce health-care benefits 20% 76% for low-income people Ask public school teachers 15% 82% to take a salary cut Reduce funding for 14% 82% public schools

Percentages may not add up to 100 because of “don’t know” responses.

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Do you favor or oppose a law that would prohibit new residents from receiving state welfare assistance for a period of three years? Favor strongly: 48% Favor somewhat: 19% Oppose somewhat: 16% Oppose strongly: 12% Don’t know: 5%

Who or what is responsible for California’s current budget problem? (Most mentioned reponses*) Legislature: 29% Wilson: 20% Deukmejian: 9% Bush: 8% Federal Government: 7% Recession: 7% Waste: 5% Illegal Immigrants: 4% * Up to two replies per person accepted.

Source: Los Angeles Times Poll of 1,629 California adults Dec. 7-10.

How the Poll Was Conducted

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The Los Angeles Times Poll interviewed 1,629 adult Californians statewide, by telephone, Dec. 7-10. Telephone numbers were selected from a list which includes all telephone exchanges in the state. Random-digit dialing techniques were used to ensure that both listed and unlisted telephone numbers had an opportunity to be contacted. Interviewing was conducted in either English or Spanish. The results were adjusted slightly to conform with census figures on variables such as sex, race and national origin, age, education and household size. The margin of sampling error for percentages based on the total sample is plus or minus 3 percentage points. For certain subgroups the error margin is somewhat higher. Poll results can be affected by other factors, such as variations in question wording and the order of question presentation.


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