Californians object to increasing taxes in order to pare the state’s massive budget deficit, and instead favor closing the breach through spending cuts. But they oppose cuts—and even prefer more spending—on programs that make up 85% of the state’s general fund obligations, a new Los Angeles Times/USC Poll has found.
That paradox rests on Californians’ firm belief that the state’s deficit—estimated last week at nearly $25 billion over the next 18 months—can be squared through trimming waste and inefficiencies rather than cutting the programs they hold dear. Despite tens of billions that have been cut from the state budget in recent years, just a quarter of California voters believed that state services would have to be curtailed to close the deficit.
The findings offered scant guidance to the Legislature, outgoing Gov. Arnold Schwarzenegger and Democrat Jerry Brown, who will become the chief executive in January, and for whom the gargantuan budget deficit looms as the primary focus of the coming year.
Voters have “a great bias toward spending cuts” rather than tax hikes, said Democratic pollster Stanley Greenberg, who co-directed the poll for The Times and the USC College of Letters, Arts & Sciences. “But when you get into it, they don’t want to cut the areas that matter.”
Only one in four voters favored trimming elementary and high schools, which make up almost 42% of state general fund spending. Just over one-third approved of cuts to state colleges and universities, or, separately, to state-financed health care for children or the poor, the poll found. The only state-financed enterprise that voters favored chopping was the prison system, which more than 70% of voters wanted to cut either minimally or by a large amount.
“Their priorities are incompatible with resolving the deficit situation,” said Republican pollster Linda DiVall, the survey’s other co-director.
Political figures often campaign on the notion that budgets can be brought swiftly into line by curbing waste, fraud or abuse. Schwarzenegger himself argued that he would find billions in savings that way—only to recant after he was elected and few easy cuts could be found.
Still, in this year’s governor’s race Republican nominee Meg Whitman argued that such problems were rampant, though she offered few specifics. Brown vowed to trim the size of government and make it more efficient, starting with the governor’s office.
Voters embrace those notions wholeheartedly. Strong majorities of Democrats and Republicans, men and women, and voters of all ideological persuasions overwhelmingly said that the deficit could be overcome by cutting waste and correcting inefficiencies. Overall, 70% of voters said closing the budget gap would require only that waste be cut. Only 24% said deficit difficulties would force cuts in key programs — numbers which varied only slightly among groups that rarely agree on substantive issues.
The dueling demands by voters were illustrated most keenly when they were asked to name their top two priorities for the new governor. Forty-three percent said Brown’s first priority should be protecting education and health care for children and the needy—which together comprise about 72% of state general fund spending. But the second strongest priority was cutting state spending, which 32% cited as their imperative.
“Truthfully, we just spend too much, and we didn’t keep to a budget when times were good,” said Raymond Ramazetter, a Covina voter who called himself an “independent.” He said he favored cuts over taxes because “we’re already taxed enough.”
“It’s damaging, but it has to be done,” he said of cuts to state programs. “You can’t keep borrowing your way out of this mess.”
But even he felt that schools and programs for the aged should not be touched. “They always seem to cut in the wrong area,” he said.
Part of the state’s conflicting views were caused by its polarized politics.
Among Democrats, 56% chose protecting education and health care as the top priority, and only 26% cited a need to cut spending. Another 31% of Democrats said taxes should be hiked on rich Californians.
Among Republicans, however, almost two in five sided with cutting spending, 31% wanted to cut taxes and only 24% favored protecting key state programs. (Another 36% cited illegal immigration as a key priority).
Resistance to higher taxes surfaced repeatedly in the poll. Overall, only 21% said raising taxes on wealthy Californians should be a priority for the new governor.
Asked separately whether they felt the deficit should be eased through spending cuts, tax hikes or a combination of both, the poll found that the largest chunk of voters, 44%, wanted to cut the deficit through decreased spending alone, with another 21% saying it should be achieved largely through spending cuts. Only 6% said taxes alone were the solution, and another 12% said the deficit should largely be dealt with by raising taxes.
When asked which taxes should be raised if increases were required, 39% of Californians said none—a statement agreed to by 59% of Republicans and 25% of Democrats. Hiking the biggest current source of state revenues, the personal income tax, was an unpopular solution; only 6% favored that. Only 14% cited increasing the sales tax, currently the second-ranking source of state revenues. The top suggested source was an oil extraction tax, at 17% overall.
Californians’ rankings of their most cherished state-financed programs came with a full serving of irony: The more important Californians felt the programs were, the higher they ranked in state spending and the more savings they would represent if voters were willing to cut—which they weren’t.
Only 10% said the state should cut “a little” and another 16% said the state should cut “a lot” from K-12 programs. But 37% said there should be no cuts, and another 34% said state spending on education should increase.
“A lot of things in this country are just backwards, and our kids are suffering because of it,” said Tracey Calland, a Democrat from Eagle Rock. “We talk about education, we talk about competing in the future, but that’s not going to happen if our kids don’t get what they need.”
Much the same view was held on health care, where 56% wanted either no cuts or spending increases, and higher education, currently the third-ranked spending category, where 59% wanted either no cuts or spending hikes.
The least favored state-financed program was prisons. While seven in ten Californians said the corrections budget should be cut; only 15% said it should not and a mere 5% said that budget should expand. Its usefulness as a budget tool is limited, however, since prison spending accounts for only 10% of the general fund. Much of the state’s spending on prisoners is guided by court orders, which have limited the ability to make substantial budget fixes, and many sentences have been lengthened by voter-approved initiatives.
Budget priorities varied little among many of the state’s often-clashing political groups. Protecting education and health care programs ranked highest for whites as well as for Latinos and Asians. Dealing with illegal immigration ranked only third for whites and Latinos. Whites and Latinos were only two percentage points apart in the importance they attached to cutting taxes.
An exception, however, came when voters were asked how much progress Brown could be expected to make in his first year as governor. Eighteen percent of Latinos said he would make significant progress but only 9% of whites expected that. (Asian and African-American voters took a middle ground between them.)
The poll surveyed a random sample of 1,689 registered California voters, including samples of 420 Latino voters and 402 Asian-American voters, interviewed by telephone from Nov. 3-14 by the Democratic firm Greenberg Quinlan Rosner, the Republican firm American Viewpoint and Latino Decisions, which surveyed Latino voters. The margin of sampling error for the full sample is 2.4 points in either direction, with larger margins for subgroups.