Poll numbers back California Gov. Jerry Brown

Capitol Journal

So far OK for Gov. Jerry Brown. Californians are cautiously optimistic about him and mildly supportive of his plan to plug the flow of red ink.

There are no screams of adulation. But people, you’ll recall, were wildly enthusiastic at first about the last two governors, Arnold Schwarzenegger and Gray Davis. And look what happened to them.

Those two became the most unpopular California governors since pollsters began asking.


Not that Brown isn’t treading on thin ice with the public.

A new statewide poll released Wednesday night shows that 47% of likely voters approve of the way Brown is handling his job. Only 20% disapprove and 33% are undecided.

Even Republicans are inclined to give him a look: 38% are undecided, with 27% approving and 35% disapproving.

“With a lot of people, it’s wait and see,” says the pollster, Mark Baldassare, president of the Public Policy Institute of California.

By comparison, Baldassare recorded Schwarzenegger’s approval at 64% soon after he took office following the 2003 Davis recall.

And Davis enjoyed 66% approval the first time the pollster measured him.

With Brown, the public’s attitude seems to be: Let’s hope he knows what he’s doing. Maybe he does. After all, he’s done it before.

Baldassare began polling the day after Brown unveiled his cut-and-tax plan to erase the state’s $25.4-billion deficit.

He kept polling for eight days, interviewing 2,004 adults, including 987 judged most likely to vote.

For this column, I only use data from the voters, figuring that if someone isn’t likely to cast a ballot, his opinion on public policy doesn’t count for much anyway.

The poll found voters tentatively supporting Brown’s plan. He’s urging the Legislature to place the tax piece on a special election ballot in June.

Basically, Brown is proposing to balance the budget half-and-half with expenditure reductions and a five-year extension of temporary income, sales and car tax increases.

He’d divert part of the tax revenue to local governments — mainly for schools and public safety — and require them to take over some state responsibilities.

And if either the Legislature or the electorate rejected this plan, Brown would cut even deeper into K-12 schools, universities, health and welfare, prisons — and whatever’s left.

When asked about all this, 54% of voters said they favored Brown’s idea and 41% opposed it.

Democrats and independents backed it, but Republicans didn’t.

Clearly, the key words in characterizing the taxes for voters are “extension” and “temporary.”

Voters still are in no mood to “raise” taxes — maybe on someone else, but not on themselves. That’s why it’s crucial for Brown that he have the election in June. On July 1, the current temporary tax hikes expire. If the election were held in November, he’d be proposing a tax increase by any definition.

Seventy percent of voters opposed the notion of raising the personal income tax, 64% balked at hiking the sales tax and 62% said don’t touch the vehicle license fee. But 55% favored taxing corporations more.

There’s some confusion or denial or hypocrisy — maybe all three — at play here.

Sixty-two percent of voters said they’d be willing to pay higher taxes to maintain current funding for K-12 schools; 51% said the same about higher education; and 46% about health and human services (but only 14% about prisons).

But of those who said they’d be willing to dig deeper to protect K-12 schools, 58% opposed raising the income tax and 52% opposed hiking the vehicle license fee.

“Everybody wants something for nothing,” says David Townsend, a Democratic consultant and periodic Brown advisor. “They want all their services but don’t want to pay for it.

“The perfect budget cut is to cut something that somebody else wants. The perfect tax is a tax on someone else.”

But Brown does seem to have a fighting chance of winning public support for his proposal, based on the poll.

Only 26% of voters support whacking schools again, and that would surely happen if Brown’s plan is rejected.

Californians are eager to balance the books in Sacramento; 83% consider the budget deficit a “big problem.”

A plurality — 45% — prefer a mixed remedy of spending cuts and tax increases. Eight percent favor “mostly” tax hikes.

The idea of shifting state tax dollars and program responsibilities to local governments is supported by nearly three-fourths of the voters.

And, significantly, two-thirds of voters think it’s a good idea to hold a special election in June. Democrats, Republicans and independents all agree. That’s in contrast to the much lower support for special elections called by Schwarzenegger in 2005 and 2009.

Baldassare says he was particularly struck by a more hopeful — or less pessimistic — mood among the public. He attributed much of this to a new governor and a new look in Sacramento.

“With a new year and new leadership, optimism about the direction of the state has increased,” says the poll write-up.

Although only 32% of likely voters believe California is going in the right direction, that’s up 20 points since October and the most optimistic they’ve been in three years.

And a surprise: 52% of voters are confident that Brown and the Legislature “will be able to work together and accomplish a lot.” A year ago, only 20% thought that about Schwarzenegger and lawmakers.

“Californians are beginning to feel more hopeful,” Baldassare says. “But that hope is fragile and could dissolve quickly. The challenge for Brown is to convince Californians that his complex budget plan is a real solution.”

First he’ll need to convince recalcitrant Republican legislators. They have the power to deny Californians a chance to vote on the plan.