Strong majority backs Jerry Brown’s tax-hike initiative


California voters strongly support Gov. Jerry Brown’s new proposal to increase the sales tax and raise levies on upper incomes to help raise money for schools and balance the state’s budget, according to a new USC Dornsife/Los Angeles Times poll.

Sixty-four percent of those surveyed said they supported the governor’s measure, which he hopes to place on the November ballot. It would hike the state sales tax by a quarter-cent per dollar for the next four years and create a graduated surcharge on incomes of more than $250,000 that would last seven years. A third of respondents opposed the measure.

Brown’s new plan, rewritten recently amid pressure from liberal activist and union groups that had a competing proposal, relies on a larger share of revenue from upper-income earners than his original measure. Correspondingly, it leans less upon sales taxes, which are paid by all California consumers. The poll shows that taxing high earners is overwhelmingly popular.

“These poll results illustrate that Brown was very smart to put together this initiative the way he did,” said Dan Schnur, director of the Jesse M. Unruh Institute of Politics at USC.

Shirley Karns, 74, an independent voter from the Northern California town of Lakeport who backs the governor’s new plan, said the wealthy should pay more.

“Those who have an unbelievable amount more than those who do not should contribute more,” she said. “And on the sales tax, the more you buy, the more you pay. It’s pretty tough on low-income people who have to pay an extra nickel here and there, but we’ve got to get the money from somewhere.”

Brown reached a deal with a coalition led by the California Federation of Teachers to tweak his tax measure. In exchange, the group dropped its rival proposal — also aimed at the November ballot — which would have increased levies exclusively on incomes of more than $1 million.

The poll found that the now-defunct plan remains more popular than the governor’s tax mix. And the findings carry other warning signs for Brown’s campaign. Less than half — 49% — of those surveyed said California’s books should be balanced by a combination of cuts and tax hikes. Nearly as many — 45% — said the state’s taxes are already too high and the estimated $9-billion budget gap should be closed with cuts in government services.

“It shows this is a tough environment to pass tax increases,” said Stan Greenberg of the Democratic polling firm Greenberg Quinlan Rosner, which conducted the survey in conjunction with the Republican company American Viewpoint.

Views of the governor’s initiative are split along party lines. Eighty percent of Democrats approved of it, while just 38% of Republicans expressed support. The measure also has the firm backing of independents — voters who state no party preference, who are more than 20% of the California electorate and whose support Brown will likely need to pass his measure. Three-quarters of independents said they liked Brown’s idea.

Voters are unenthusiastic about a separate revenue proposal that would hike income levies on most California taxpayers to raise money for schools and early childhood education programs and help pay down the state debt. The measure, backed by Pasadena attorney Molly Munger and the California State PTA, was supported by just 32% of those surveyed; 64% opposed it.

“Whenever people feel they may have to pay the taxes themselves, there’s a clear move against it,” said pollster Linda DiVall of American Viewpoint.

Jennifer Tran, a 25-year-old community college student and waitress from Chino Hills who is a registered Republican, says she has seen the impact of state budget cuts. Classes are harder to get into, and the price for courses has increased. But she is opposed to any new tax proposal because she doesn’t trust Sacramento lawmakers to spend the money wisely.

“Are they going to do what they promise or just come up with different programs and laws we don’t need and more unnecessary spending?” she said.

About half of respondents approve of the job Brown is doing as governor. He received positive reviews from 49%, while 35% said they disapproved of his performance and 15% had no opinion. Asked for a more general impression, 51% said they regarded Brown favorably and 35% did not.

The poll also measured support for two initiatives on the June ballot: a cigarette tax hike of $1 per pack that would raise an estimated $850 million annually for cancer research, and a proposal to change the state’s term limits law.

Sixty-eight percent said they favored Proposition 29, the tobacco tax, compared to 29% who opposed it.

Support is more tenuous for an adjustment of the term limits that voters imposed on state legislators in 1990. Proposition 28 would reduce the overall amount of time a lawmaker can serve in Sacramento from 14 years to 12, but would allow all 12 years to be spent in one legislative house. Current law limits Assembly members to three two-year terms and state senators to two four-year terms.

A bare majority, 51% of those surveyed, said they would like such a change. Thirty-two percent opposed it. The proposal has stronger support from Republicans — 58% were in favor — while just 48% of Democrats liked the idea.

Voters narrowly rejected a similar proposal in 2004 that was backed by Democratic lawmakers and Gov. Arnold Schwarzenegger.

The USC Dornsife College of Letters, Arts and Sciences/Los Angeles Times poll surveyed 1,500 registered California voters from March 14 through 19. The sampling error is 2.9 percentage points.