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Times/USC Dornsife poll: Californians support tax hikes to help close budget gap

California voters agree with Gov. Jerry Brown that tax increases should help close the state budget deficit, and they want to vote on his plan for raising the revenue, according to a new Times/USC Dornsife poll.

The Democratic governor has been traveling the state to tout his proposal for a balance of spending reductions and tax increases since it stalled in the Legislature last month amid a bitter battle with Republicans. He had wanted an election in June on a renewal of several tax increases that will have expired by July 1, but he now hopes for a vote in the fall.

Sixty percent of those surveyed, including majorities of both Democrats and Republicans, said they back such an election. The alternative being pushed by most GOP lawmakers — forgoing an election and balancing the budget by cutting more from state services — was supported by just 33%.

Support for the cuts-only approach dropped to 25% when voters were informed that it would probably require reductions in school funding, according to the survey conducted for The Times and the USC Dornsife College of Letters, Arts and Sciences.

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The findings reflect a significant shift in Californians’ attitudes about how to approach the deficit. In November, 44% wanted the budget balanced with spending cuts alone.

“It looks like Jerry Brown has successfully reframed the discussion,” said Dan Schnur, director of the Jesse M. Unruh Institute of Politics at USC and a former GOP political consultant. “Spending cuts are OK to people in the abstract, but when you get specific they start to get scared.”

Voters clearly do not want the taxes extended without their say, however. A majority, 53%, said they opposed reinstating the levies through legislative action alone, an approach suggested by Democratic leaders. The Legislature and governor do not need voters’ consent to raise taxes, but Brown has promised to seek it.

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Brown and lawmakers have already reduced a $26-billion deficit by about $11 billion, largely by cutting programs. The governor wants the taxes to fill most of the remaining gap.

Brown “seems to be reflecting the mood of the state pretty well in terms of how to handle the deficit,” said Democratic pollster Stanley Greenberg of Greenberg Quinlan Rosner, one of two firms that conducted the bipartisan poll.

Although the budget crisis has dominated the news for years, the survey found that few people have as firm a grasp on the details as they believe. Some 75% of respondents said they were following the budget debate, yet only 16% were aware that state spending has shrunk by billions of dollars over the last three years.

Nearly half thought the budget had grown in that period, with more than 1 in 4 saying it was “much bigger.” In fact, general fund spending went from $103 billion in the 2007-08 budget year to $92.2 billion in the current year.

Voters who were aware that the budget had contracted were least likely to want the deficit closed with cuts alone; only 12% of them supported that approach.

Among all voters, there was little appetite for the specific spending reductions lawmakers are making to tame the deficit. Cuts in welfare grants and healthcare programs for poor children, both of which have already been approved, were backed by just 26%. Cuts in higher education, also already enacted, were favored by 42%, and among Latinos, support for higher education reductions dropped precipitously, to 28%.

The only cuts favored by large majorities were those with minimal effects on the deficit — reductions in government worker benefits and perks, for example.

Still, Greenberg cautioned that “it would be a tough battle to pass” the tax proposal should Brown win the handful of Republican legislative votes needed to place a measure on the ballot. The governor’s plan calls for renewing increases in vehicle license fees and sales taxes that will expire this summer and an income tax hike that ended months ago.

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Voters rejected an extension of the tax hikes two years ago, and Brown’s own advisors acknowledge that it is more difficult to persuade voters to back fresh taxes than existing ones.

Among poll participants who would like the opportunity to vote on Brown’s plan was Anton Fleig, 59, a software engineer in Santa Cruz and a registered Democrat.

“It is unconscionable to cut some of these programs when disparity of wealth is what it is,” he said. “It is just morally wrong…. I would rather have less money in my pocket.”

Crystal Brown, 61, a Republican and a teacher in Pasadena, said she worried that her district would face yet more budget cuts if taxes are not raised.

“I already have a hard time just getting pencils for my classroom,” she said, predicting more furlough days and layoffs if the state does not start collecting more revenue.

But respondents also expressed frustration about the way Sacramento has handled their money, with 41% saying the deficit was caused by elected leaders being wasteful and not spending wisely.

“There must be ways we can tighten up the system so it is not so easy to abuse and we can help the people who truly need it,” said Democrat Dorothy Buffington, a Bay Area realtor in her 60s.

Most voters continue to take a grim view of the direction the state is heading and of the California economy. Only 19% of respondents said the state was going in the right direction, compared with 70% who said things were pretty seriously on the wrong track.

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A total of 68% said they were “disappointed,” “angry” or “uncertain” about California’s direction.

By 50% to 37%, voters surveyed said state policies and economic conditions have created a poor jobs climate, discouraging businesses from locating in California or expanding here. Less than a third, 29%, said they believed the economy was starting to improve, with 39% saying things were going to get worse and 28% saying the economy had bottomed out but was not getting better.

Kindred Gottlieb, a 38-year-old Democrat who works in the theater department at UCLA, is among the anxious. She was dismayed to see while preparing her tax return recently that she made less money last year than the year before.

“I’m worried the economy is just going to stay down for a while,” she said.

Republican pollster Linda DiVall of the research and consulting firm American Viewpoint said pessimism about the state’s direction and economy could undermine Brown’s push for taxes.

“The economic malaise people are in is a real anchor” that could sink the governor’s bid, she said.

Despite voters’ clear support for Brown’s budget agenda, fewer than half — 44% — said they approved of the job he is doing as governor, a reflection of the angst Californians feel about the state’s continuing financial crisis. Still, he was viewed by 49% as an experienced leader who can help the state; 37% saw him as a representative of the past who lacks good new ideas.

As Brown takes the lead among Democrats in advocating more taxes, he is also championing budget-related changes more typically associated with Republicans. Voters are firmly behind the governor in these efforts.

Eighty percent of those surveyed said they supported a stricter limit on state spending, for example, and 70% favored a cap on the size of pensions that government employees can collect. Brown wants to enact both policies, but Democrats in the Legislature have been resisting. Such changes had support from solid majorities of both Democratic and Republican voters.

“Voters are willing to take those steps,” said Schnur. “Their elected representatives in the Legislature are not nearly so open-minded.”

The voters have taken notice. They continue to hold the Legislature in low regard, with just 21% approving of its job performance.

The Los Angeles Times/USC Dornsife College of Letters, Arts and Sciences poll surveyed 1,503 registered voters from April 7 to 17. It was conducted by companies based in the Washington, D.C., area: Greenberg Quinlan Rosner, a Democratic firm, and American Viewpoint, a Republican firm. The margin of sampling error is plus or minus 2.53 percentage points.

evan.halper@latimes.com


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