Five state ballot measures aimed at solving California’s budget crisis are falling short of the support needed to pass in the May special election, a sign that voters may force lawmakers into another fierce clash over tax hikes and spending cuts, according to a poll released Wednesday.
The state’s dismal economy has already partly unraveled the budget deal that Gov. Arnold Schwarzenegger and the Legislature reached last month, with a drop in tax collections leaving a new $8-billion shortfall. Rejection of the ballot measures would widen the gap to nearly $14 billion.
The least popular measure, Proposition 1C, is also the one that state leaders are counting on most for immediate fiscal relief: It would let the state borrow $5 billion against future lottery revenue. The cost, to be paid over decades, would be billions in new interest obligations and less lottery money to meet future spending needs.
The poll by the nonpartisan Public Policy Institute of California found that Proposition 1C would lose in a rout if the May 19 election were held today, with 37% of likely voters in favor and 50% opposed.
Faring slightly better, but still decisively rejected, would be Proposition 1A. It would cap state spending while extending billions in temporary tax hikes for an extra two years. The survey found 39% of likely voters for it and 46% against.
So far, Proposition 1A is the measure that has drawn the most attention. Conservatives on talk radio, enraged by the extension of the tax hikes, have made its defeat a top priority. Some labor unions are weighing whether to campaign against the spending cap.
The dynamics of the special election are volatile, and public opinion could swing dramatically once campaign advertising begins. Also, voter turnout is likely to be low, and it is unclear what mix of Californians will wind up casting ballots in the oddly timed election.
Three measures were winning a plurality of support in the poll, but still falling short of the 50% threshold for passage. The poll has a margin of sampling error of three percentage points among likely voters.
The poll found likely voters lukewarm on twin measures to loosen restrictions on money that Californians have dedicated solely to children’s health and mental health programs under previous initiatives.
Both measures, Propositions 1D and 1E, fall a few points short of 50%, but more voters backed them than opposed them.
Voter sentiment was split on Proposition 1B, which puts money into schools in future years to make up for cuts this year, with 44% in favor and 41% opposed. Lawmakers made it part of the ballot package in part to dissuade the state’s potent teachers unions from joining the opposition campaign.
All in all, “the supporters of the propositions have their work cut out for them,” said pollster Mark Baldassare, president of the policy institute.
Schwarzenegger and Democrats who lead the Legislature have joined forces to raise money for mail and television ads promoting the ballot measures.
On Wednesday, Schwarzenegger said failure to pass the measures would be “disastrous” for California.
But the poll raises doubts about Schwarzenegger’s effectiveness as a messenger. His popularity matches the record low he set in December 2005, with 33% of likely voters approving of his job performance and 57% disapproving. For the first time, a majority of Republicans questioned by the Public Policy Institute pollsters give him negative job ratings.
The Legislature, too, is at a record low, with an 11% job approval rating.
“I think that tells you a lot about the anger and frustration that’s out there,” Baldassare said.