California voters still support Jerry Brown’s call for tax hikes

SACRAMENTO — California voters continue to back Gov. Jerry Brown in his call for higher taxes, but distrust of state government could erode that support, according to a new USC Dornsife/Los Angeles Times poll.

About half of those surveyed said they approved of Brown’s job performance — a finding virtually unchanged from three months ago, before he announced that the projected budget deficit had leapt from $9.2 billion to $16 billion. Brown wants voters to pass a quarter-cent increase in the sales tax and raise levies on individual incomes of more than $250,000 by 1 to 3 percentage points, or about 11% to 32%.

But some of those inclined to support increased taxes are reluctant to trust state leaders with more money.

When told of the growing deficit and the governor’s plan to plug it with a combination of spending cuts and tax increases, 59% of respondents said they would support the tax hikes. Just 36% said they would vote against the proposal if it is on the ballot this fall as Brown hopes.

However, when voters heard arguments against the plan — namely, the suggestion that Sacramento could waste any new money it received from higher taxes rather than spend it on such services as schools and public safety — only 50% said they would vote for it. And 42% would oppose it.

“Very quickly, the intensity changes as people are presented with more information,” said Linda DiVall of the Republican polling firm American Viewpoint, which conducted the survey in conjunction with the Democratic company Greenberg Quinlan Rosner.

The proposal’s passage, which would require a simple majority, would depend in large part on Brown’s ability to win independent voters — those not registered with any political party, who make up about 21% of the state’s electorate. They were the most likely to turn against the governor’s measure when an argument was made against it.

Before the critique, independents supported the measure 58% to 38%. Afterward, just 43% of those respondents said they would vote yes and 47% said they would vote no.

One of those people is Margrit Drexelius, a 52-year-old independent voter from Santa Clarita. She said she recognizes why Brown is asking people to pay more in taxes but doubts lawmakers would spend the money wisely.

“I understand the money has to come from somewhere,” she said. “But I don’t think they know how to use people’s money. Frankly, I think that all politicians are doing a crappy job.”

The governor should be concerned about that, said Dan Schnur, director of the Jesse M. Unruh Institute of Politics at USC.

“Winning every registered Democrat in this state still doesn’t get you across the finish line,” said Schnur. “He needs to win the independents to pull this off.” Brown has more work to do with voters, Schnur said.

“He’s convinced them that public schools and public safety need more money, but … if the governor were able to do something like pass pension reform before the election, it could help him in his efforts to show voters Sacramento can be more fiscally responsible.”

Voters are also warm to some of the governor’s other ideas for balancing the budget. By a 2-1 margin, for example, respondents liked Brown’s plan to shave two hours off the average state employee’s work week. The governor says such a move, proposed as part of his revised budget plan earlier this month, would save the state about $400 million a year.

When told that fewer work hours would mean closing state offices an additional day each week, support dipped but remained solid.

Voters are less in agreement about an idea being considered by the Legislature to generate income: the possible legalization of online poker and other forms of Internet gambling. About half of those polled said the spread of Web-based gambling would set a bad example for young people and make it more likely they would become addicted.

Still, 47% said they would favor legalization of online poker if, as lawmakers promise, it could raise $200 million annually for education, public safety and other government services.

As Brown has struggled for control of California’s tenuous finances, voters’ views of his performance have held relatively steady —even ticking up slightly.

A little over a year ago, in April 2011, 44% approved of the job he was doing, while 33% looked askance. Last July, after Brown had signed his first budget since besting Meg Whitman for the governor’s job, approval rose to 48%, with 30% disapproving (15% rendered no opinion).

As Californians have learned more about Brown, disapproval has also grown somewhat. In March of this year, 49% approved of the job he is doing and 35% did not. This month, 49% approved of the job the governor is doing; 39% disapproved.

“It’s not an intense approval of his performance,” said Drew Lieberman of Greenberg Quinlan Rosner. But keeping the rating steady is “a pretty impressive feat, given the economic circumstances and the ongoing budget troubles of the state.”

The USC Dornsife College of Letters, Arts and Sciences/Los Angeles Times poll canvassed 1,002 registered voters from May 17 through May 21. The margin of error is 3.5 percentage points.