Ignorance bites California in the wallet
Last week brought a blizzard of polling on how Californians feel about their government and the economy. In two words: dislike and despair. The fine print suggested we should save a little distaste for ourselves.
A survey by the Public Policy Institute of California found that, overwhelmingly, Californians want themselves -- not the governor or the Legislature -- to be in charge of big budget matters.
It also found that, even more overwhelmingly, Californians haven’t a clue where the state gets its money or how it spends it -- basic essentials for people who want to run the show. This is, of course, after years of headlines and hand-wringing about California’s fiscal crisis, budget cutbacks, IOUs and the potential for one of the world’s biggest economies to go belly up.
Those who favored the comics pages in decades past may recall the words of the possum philosopher Pogo: “We have met the enemy, and he is us.”
It’s not quite as bad as it sounds, according to the institute’s pollster, Mark Baldassare. It’s not as though Californians are an egomaniacal bunch grabbing all the power for themselves while ignoring the state’s fiscal basics. At least that first part is wrong, he said. Californians might be happy to turn over power to the governor and the Legislature if they had any confidence that either could handle things. But they don’t.
“I don’t think it speaks to how much they know, but how little they trust . . . the people in Sacramento to make the decisions,” he said.
So, egotistic? No. Clueless? Well, yes.
Baldassare asked Californians where the state gets the biggest chunk of its money. Thirty percent said sales taxes, 28% said personal income taxes, 18% said corporation taxes and 17% said car fees. So more than seven in 10 got it wrong. Last year, 55% of state revenues came from income taxes, 31% from sales taxes, 10% from corporation taxes and a mere 2% from car fees.
As to how the state spends its money, almost half of Californians -- 49% -- said prisons took the most. Twenty-four percent cited health and human services, 16% said kindergarten through high school and 5% said higher education. Again, wildly wrong. The lion’s share of state money, 41%, goes to kindergarten-through-12th-grade education, 30% goes to health and human services, 13% to higher education and 10% to prisons.
There was a clear ideological bent to beliefs about spending. Democrats were far more likely than Republicans to believe that prisons took the most money. Republicans were more likely than Democrats to see health and welfare services as most costly.
None of this surprises budget veterans. Jean Ross, executive director of the California Budget Project, recounted a running bet when she and others attend focus groups of Californians about the budget. How long will it take before someone asks: Schools don’t have enough money? What about the lottery?
“It’s never more than 13 minutes,” Ross said. “That’s because it was sold to voters as ‘billions of dollars for your school.’ It wasn’t sold to voters as ‘1% of the money for your child’s school.’ ”
Indeed, the lottery has paid more than $20 billion to education since 1985. That, however, is less than half the education budget for this year alone.
It’s not just rank-and-file Californians who don’t understand the budget. Politicians, too, are often in the dark, Ross said.
“People don’t understand, with good reason, how it all fits together,” she added. “I’ve been doing this professionally for decades, and it’s hard to understand how it all fits together.”
One reason for that is the organization of civic finance, a bowl of spaghetti even in good times. Revenues and spending flow between the state and counties and special funds, unseen and misunderstood by most Californians. Ever-changing configurations are meant to stave off fiscal problems that never go away, despite the effort.
Another reason is that few of those in charge have laid out the budget mess in all its gore. It’s been easier to paint a rosy scenario -- except now, having had those scenarios proved repeatedly wrong, no one believes the painters.
This year’s crop of candidates for governor -- one of whom will inherit the mess -- is no different.
Republican front-runner Meg Whitman has long contended that she would cut $15 billion out of the budget, but still hasn’t said how. Her radio ads, on the air since September, emphasize her desire to cut spending.
“In Sacramento, they keep going back to the same old ideas, ideas that don’t work,” she said in one radio ad. “They seem to think if we just had a little more money to spend. . . .”
In reality, lawmakers and the governor have tried another tactic -- cutting spending. Even with millions more people relying on its schools, roads and other civic improvements, California now spends less than it spent in 2005-06. Billions less, in fact.
Whitman has not held a public campaign event since early December; last week she was on the East Coast promoting her new book, “The Power of Many.” No specific solutions to California’s mess were offered, though Whitman did launch one Zen gem about her general approach.
“I think leaders have to focus,” she said on the set of MSNBC’s “Morning Joe” program. “In times of crisis, you cannot boil the ocean.”
Jerry Brown, the unofficial Democratic candidate for governor, hasn’t offered much more as he inches his way toward a formal candidacy. On a San Francisco radio show last week, he gave a downbeat assessment of the state and nothing in the way of solutions.
“I’ve been looking at this budget, like examining a Rubik’s Cube, for the last year, and I tell you it’s daunting to say the least,” Brown told hosts at KGO-AM (810).
“The state is profoundly screwed up. And anybody who thinks they’ve got an idea -- I wish they’d give me a call. I’d like to listen to it because I can tell you, we’re in for blood, sweat and tears over the next four years.”
Politicians are in the business of pleasing people, and there’s nothing very pleasant about the state’s budget options. Still, without a clear understanding of the basics, it’s hard to figure the way out.
When pollster Baldassare went through his numbers, he uncovered a sobering result: Only 6% of Californians could identify both the biggest revenue source and the biggest beneficiary of state money.
“It seems to me that what you need as a starting point are some basic facts about where the money comes from and where it’s going, to make sound fiscal decisions,” he said. “And they don’t have that base of knowledge.”
Each Sunday, The Week examines implications of major stories. It is archived at latimes.com/theweek.