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Most in State Expect Some Tax Increases

Times Staff Writer

With the state mired in a budget crisis for the fourth year in a row, most Californians support raising taxes and expect Gov. Arnold Schwarzenegger and the Legislature to adopt that approach, a new Los Angeles Times poll has found.

The Republican governor has resisted calls by Democrats to cushion spending cuts with higher taxes, but in recent weeks has hinted at flexibility, given the depth of the state’s fiscal troubles.

The poll found that the public strongly favors increasing taxes in at least several areas. Nearly four out of five Californians back higher taxes on cigarettes, and, by the same ratio, alcoholic beverages. An overwhelming 69% support raising income taxes on the wealthy. On the question of a sales tax increase, the state is almost evenly split.

The poll also found that Democrat Barbara Boxer is strongly favored for reelection to the U.S. Senate in November. If the election were held today, she would trounce her Republican challenger, former Secretary of State Bill Jones, 54% to 34%. Jones remains largely unknown to most voters.

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On fiscal matters, the poll suggests that the state’s political climate is more accommodating than it has been in years for Sacramento to raise taxes. California, which is running this year on a budget of nearly $100 billion, faces a $14-billion shortfall that Schwarzenegger and the Legislature are trying to close.

“I really don’t see another way out of it -- other than raising taxes,” said Berkeley independent Kevin Kovalchik, 27, a Microsoft salesman who participated in the poll and spoke in a follow-up interview. “I just don’t see another possible solution.”

During the recall campaign, Schwarzenegger said he would not raise taxes unless the state suffered a natural disaster.

Since taking office, he has proposed higher tuition at state colleges and universities, but no tax hikes to balance his proposed budget for the fiscal year starting July 1. Instead, he has relied mainly on spending cuts and borrowing.

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In the four years since the dot-com bust wiped out a major chunk of California’s tax collections, the state’s political leaders have struggled to reach consensus on how much the state must spend to sustain vital public services -- and where to get that money. The prolonged fiscal distress largely drove the voter recall of Gov. Gray Davis in October.

More than six months later, the budget crisis still ranks as a top public concern, the poll found. In addition, more than half of Californians say the economy is doing badly.

Overall, the public’s outlook on the state of affairs in California remains bleak, with 56% saying things are seriously off on the wrong track and 36% viewing things as generally headed in the right direction.

Yet Schwarzenegger remains a highly popular governor. Even if he were to break his promise not to raise taxes, the poll found, most Californians say it would not change their opinion of him.

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“He might have been a little unrealistic when he made that promise, and reality may be hitting him now that he’s in the governor’s chair,” said Murrieta pest control manager Michael Johnson, 28, a Libertarian. “I can’t say that would be something that I would hold against him too much.”

As to Schwarzenegger’s general job performance, 64% of Californians approve; among registered voters, 69%. His biggest fans are Republicans and conservatives, but a majority of liberals, moderates, independents and Democrats also give him positive job ratings.

Schwarzenegger has one notable weak spot among traditional Democratic constituencies: just 39% of blacks and 46% of Latinos approve of his job performance. Yet for a Republican officeholder, even those numbers are relatively high.

The poll, taken April 17 to 21, came after a string of political successes for Schwarzenegger, most recently his deal with the Legislature on a plan to cut the cost of insurance for workplace injuries.

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Underscoring Schwarzenegger’s strength is the leeway many Californians give him on solving the budget mess. If he were to raise taxes, the poll found, 60% would view him as being realistic about the state’s economic situation, while 33% would see him as caving in to special interests.

Regardless of their own preference on the matter, 61% expect Schwarzenegger and the Legislature to raise taxes.

“I’m just in the waiting-for-it-to-happen stage,” said Riverside homemaker Kellie Green, 31, a Republican who said she never believed Schwarzenegger’s promise not to raise taxes.

Offered three options to close the state’s budget gap, Californians are somewhat divided: 12% favor tax hikes alone, 44% prefer a combination of tax hikes and spending cuts, and 38% want spending cuts alone.

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Most strongly opposed to taxes are Republicans and conservatives; a majority of each favors spending cuts alone to close the budget hole.

“I would prefer that they cut taxes,” Green said, “because I believe that tax cuts promote more business.”

Last year, when California faced a budget shortfall more than double the size of this year’s, Davis proposed $8 billion in tax hikes, but Republican lawmakers blocked the move.

Since then, support has grown for raising taxes, the poll found. Among the most popular possibilities: higher personal income taxes for the wealthiest Californians.

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“That would be great because they can afford it,” said San Bernardino nurse Cindy Adams, 39, a Democrat. “I don’t think it would hurt them as much as someone who couldn’t afford it.”

Included among those who back income tax hikes for the wealthy were Republicans, who favor such a change by a 5-4 ratio.

Even more popular, among all Californians, would be higher taxes on cigarettes or alcohol.

“I don’t have a need for alcohol and tobacco, and to be honest, I don’t look at them as particularly healthy substances,” Johnson said. “Since it is a vice, I think it would be a good area to hit a little harder with taxes.”

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As for whom Californians blame for the state’s economic problems, the top choice remains Davis, followed by the Legislature.

Indeed, the unpopular Legislature has made little progress in recovering from its abysmal public image despite recent efforts to work closely with Schwarzenegger on solving the state’s problems. Just 34% of voters rate the Legislature favorably.

“The same ones that let Davis run us into debt are in there now,” said Lois Muse-Kinikin, 91, a Republican retired nurse from La Habra. “Why didn’t they stop it then, before we got where we are?”

In the Senate race, the poll found strong advantages for Boxer. With a solid base of support among women, blacks, Latinos, liberals, moderates, Democrats and independents, she is viewed favorably by 54% of California voters

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“She’s a Democrat, and she’s feisty, and I like her,” said Sunland tree trimmer Jennie Zager, 65, a Democrat. “She comes out for working people.”

Although most Republicans and conservatives view Boxer unfavorably, her overall job approval rating among voters is a robust 57%, just behind the state’s other U.S. senator, Democrat Dianne Feinstein, who scores 63%. First elected to the Senate in 1992, Boxer is also well known to the vast majority of Californians.

Jones, however, remains a stranger to most voters in the state: 61% say they do not know enough about him to express an opinion; a quarter of California voters hold a favorable impression of him, 14% unfavorable.

Even among conservatives, his political base, more than half could not say whether they held a positive or negative impression of him.

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That lack of familiarity poses a major problem for Jones because of the $5.9 million that Boxer has in the bank, much of which could be used to define him for voters on her terms. According to the most recent finance reports, Jones has $200,000 on hand. A former Fresno assemblyman, Jones was secretary of state from 1994 to 2002.

On issues, too, the poll found trouble for Jones. He has campaigned heavily on his authorship of California’s three-strikes criminal sentencing law. But 46% of voters say that would make no difference in determining their vote, and the rest were roughly divided on whether it would make them more or less likely to back Jones.

Also, on issues that Boxer has stressed -- her support for legal abortion and gun control, and her opposition to offshore oil drilling -- most voters say her views on each of those matters are in line with their own. The poll found 59% favor legal abortion and 55% back stricter gun control laws. On oil drilling off the coast, 52% generally disapprove while 37% approve.

To the extent that voters are familiar with Jones, he is viewed most favorably by Republicans and conservatives. Green, for one, said she would support him “because of his pro-life stance and his more conservative leaning.”

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“He’s supporting families,” she said, “and a more traditional way of life.”

Jones views Schwarzenegger’s endorsement as his prize asset in the campaign. But nearly four in five voters say the governor’s support makes no difference to them, with the rest split between whether it would make them more or less likely to back Jones.

The survey, overseen by Times polling director Susan Pinkus, interviewed 1,571 Californians, including 1,265 registered voters. The margin of sampling error is plus or minus 3 percentage points.

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(BEGIN TEXT OF INFOBOX)

Biggest issues

Q: Most important problem facing the state? (top four responses shown, up to two responses accepted)

Budget crisis: 20%

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Economy: 18%

Education: 17%

Jobs: 11%

Source: Times Poll

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2004 Copyright Los Angeles Times

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(BEGIN TEXT OF INFOBOX)

California politics

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Q: For each proposal that some say could help wipe out the budget deficit, would you support or oppose it?

A small increase in the sales tax:

*--* All Democrat Independent Republican Support 47% 52% 39% 44% Oppose 50 46 61 53 Don’t know 3 2 - 3

*--*

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Raising the state income tax rates for the highest-income residents:

*--* All Democrat Independent Republican Support 69% 83% 73% 52% Oppose 28 15 25 41 Don’t know 3 2 2 7

*--*

Increasing the tax on a pack of cigarettes:

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*--* All Democrat Independent Republican Support 78% 80% 82% 75% Oppose 20 19 18 22 Don’t know 2 1 - 3

*--*

Increasing the tax on alcoholic beverages:

*--* All Democrat Independent Republican Support 79% 85% 79% 70% Oppose 19 14 20 26 Don’t know 2 1 1 4

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*--*

Q: Suppose Gov. Schwarzenegger were to propose a tax increase in California. Which of the following statements comes closer to your view?

“By raising taxes, Gov. Schwarzenegger is being realistic about the economic situation in California,”

All: 60%

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Democrat: 66%

Independent: 64%

Republican: 63%

or, “By raising taxes, Gov. Schwarzenegger is caving in to political pressure from special interests”?

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All: 33%

Democrat: 30%

Independent: 32%

Republican: 30%

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*Q: Do you approve or disapprove of the way they are handling their job:

*--* Approve Disapprove Don’t know Arnold Schwarzenegger 69% 22 9 Dianne Feinstein 63% 24 13 Barbara Boxer 57% 31 12 State Legislature 34% 51 15

*--*

Q: If the November general election for U.S. senator were being held today, for whom would you vote?

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*--* Reg. voters Democrat Independent Republican Barbara Boxer 54% 84% 54% 16% Bill Jones 34 7 20 73 Someone else - - 3 - Don’t know 12 9 23 11

*--*

Q: As of today, do you have a favorable or unfavorable impression of:

*--* Favorable Unfavorable Haven’t heard Don’t know Barbara Boxer 54% 32 12 2 Bill Jones 25% 14 56 5

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*--*

Q: Barbara Boxer supports a woman’s right to decide whether to have an abortion or not. Bill Jones opposes abortion, except in the case of incest, rape or to save the life of the mother. Who comes closer to your views on abortion:

*--* Reg. voters Democrat Independent Republican Barbara Boxer 62% 79% 65% 42% Bill Jones 32 17 30 51 Both/neither 2 1 - 3 Not sure 4 3 5 4

*--*

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Q: Barbara Boxer is in favor of stricter gun control laws. Bill Jones opposes stricter gun control laws. Who comes closer to your views on gun control:

*--* Reg. voters Democrat Independent Republican Barbara Boxer 64% 86% 64% 36% Bill Jones 27 10 25 50 Both/neither 3 1 6 5

*--*

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Times staff writer Jeffrey L. Rabin, associate polling director Jill Darling Richardson and data management supervisor Claudia Vaughn contributed to this report.


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