As various California power players develop an array of tax initiatives to propose for next year's ballot, they are reading the political tea leaves, hoping to discern how receptive voters might be in a sluggish economy.
While the proposals are still in their embryonic stages, deep-pocketed interest groups that could pay for ballot-measure campaigns say they're heartened by recent public opinion poll findings and local elections.
A bipartisan poll conducted for the USC Dornsife College of Letters, Arts and Sciences and the Los Angeles Times found that 64% of registered voters would be willing to pay higher taxes to boost funding for public schools. In municipal elections held throughout California on Nov. 8, voters approved 41 of 53 local tax, fee and bond measures, many of which required a two-thirds majority to pass.
"We can't wait for the marketplace to start solving our problems," said Josh Pechthalt, president of the California Federation of Teachers, which is pushing for a tax on millionaires to help fund K-12 education, state universities and public safety. "We have to have government move forward now to make sure our bridges are not collapsing and we're getting adequate funding for education."
Other proposals would ask voters to pay sales taxes on services and effectively raise levies on out-of-state companies that do business in California but maintain their workforces and offices elsewhere.
Tax advocates, including Gov. Jerry Brown, are hoping California's ongoing fiscal crisis will help their cause as the state braces for more service cuts.
The nonpartisan Legislative Analyst's Office has said Sacramento will likely be $3.7 billion short of balancing its books in the current fiscal year. That will probably trigger a new round of reductions that could mean a shorter school year in some districts and millions of dollars slashed from public universities, child-care programs and services for the disabled. Even then, California could face a $13-billion shortfall in the next fiscal year, the analyst said.
A recent poll by the Public Policy Institute of California found that 67% of Californians said state budget cuts have affected their local government services "a lot."
But taxpayer groups noted that Californians have not approved a statewide tax increase since 2004, when voters supported a levy on those making more than $1 million to pay for expanded county mental health programs.
"We don't see a huge change in the landscape," said Jon Coupal, president of the Howard Jarvis Taxpayers Assn. "Voters are far more likely to reject a statewide tax increase because they think the money they are giving now is sufficient and it's not being used wisely."
Experts say some voters may be reluctant to give Sacramento more money, in part, because they harbor a deep distrust of state government. According to a recent PPIC survey, the Legislature has only a 25% approval rating. And Californians were split on the idea of lowering the vote threshold for state lawmakers to raise taxes: 45% said it was a good idea, 44% said it was a bad idea and 11% were undecided.
"At the local level, people feel a little bit more certainty about where their money is going and who to hold accountable," said Mark Baldassare, the institute's pollster and president.
In Riverside, for instance, voters renewed an expiring $19 parcel tax for the next decade to help fund library services. The measure, expected to generate $1.4 million a year, represents a quarter of the city's library budget. Demand, officials said, has been surging in the economic downturn.
In Oakdale, a town of roughly 19,000 near Yosemite National Park, voters passed a half-cent sales tax this month to maintain fire and police staffing as the city pares the rest of its workforce. Officials said the tax increase came with strings: an independent audit of city government and a citizens' committee to advise on how the new funds are spent.
"Local governments would be just fine if the state would keep its long arm out of our finances," said Gregory Wellman, Oakdale's interim city manager.
Some advocates are crafting their tax initiatives with that sentiment in mind. A proposal being assembled by the Think Long Committee, a group of political insiders and civic-minded billionaires, would raise taxes by as much as $10 billion a year. The money, which would largely be generated by a sales tax on services, would go directly to schools, universities and local governments.
"What we were really after here was … a stream of revenue that's not going to Sacramento," said Nathan Gardels, a spokesman for Think Long. "People want to be assured that money is going where it's supposed to go. They don't want it to be wasted."
Los Angeles Times staff writer Anthony York contributed to this report.