Commentary

Voters To Sacramento: Will Spending Improve Our Lives?


By Mark Baldassare, research director, Public Policy Institute of California
This opinion article appeared in the San Diego Union-Tribune on November 3, 2006

Voters will have a large say in the future direction of California when they go to the polls on Election Day to vote on a multibillion-dollar package of state infrastructure bonds. But so far, this history-making choice is a side show in an election dominated by all of the hoopla surrounding Governor Arnold Schwarzenegger's re-election bid, millions of dollars in television commercials about ballot initiatives that would boost taxes on oil companies and cigarette smokers and the potential for party change in Congress. Right now, the outcome is uncertain that all, or even some, of the state bonds will pass.

Why did the infrastructure bonds end up on the November ballot?

California has added 13 million residents since 1980, and this state of 37 million people is expected to add a population the size of Ohio by 2025. Numerous studies conclude that we are not fully addressing the needs for construction and repair of our roads, schools, water and other public works projects. A lack of political will and a fear that voters will balk at big spending plans have led to a long delay in the response from state officials.

In the wake of a humiliating defeat in the bitter special election last fall, Schwarzenegger took the high road in January when he announced an ambitious effort for rebuilding California in his annual State of the State Address. His plan to spend $222 billion over 10 years for infrastructure projects included state bonds that were scheduled for the June primary ballot. That didn't happen, when the effort hit a partisan roadblock in the spring, but the Legislature countered with a big bond package for the voters this fall.

Voters are being asked to support four infrastructure bonds worth a total of $37 billion for surface transportation (1B: $19.9 billion), affordable housing (1C: $2.85 billion), education facilities (1D: $10.4 billion) and water and flood controls (1E: $4.1 billion). They are also being asked to vote on a state bond for water and parks projects (Proposition 84: $5.4 billion) that was placed on the ballot through the initiative process.

In the most recent Public Policy Institute of California Statewide Survey in September, two of the bonds had weak support (1B transportation: 51 percent; ID education: 51 percent), two of the bonds had modest support (1E water: 53 percent; 1C housing: 56 percent), and voters were divided on the water and parks bond initiative (84: 42 percent yes, 43 percent no).

We have seen no significant gains in voter support for Propositions 1B, 1C, 1D, 1E, and 84 since our August survey. Opposition to all of the bonds is high among GOP voters. Support for the water bond is lower in the Southern California region that includes San Diego, while the transportation bond has weaker support in the Central Valley than elsewhere. Many who say they are voting for Schwarzenegger despite his endorsement of the bonds are not supporting these measures.

Right now, the fate of the bond package meant to reshape the state's infrastructure landscape for future generations is in doubt for several reasons: The tab may be too high, voters' trust in government may be too low, the details of the bond package are too much of an unknown, and the bipartisan campaign that has been promised has yet to surface.

Most voters in our polls say we should spend more on infrastructure, and they like the idea of borrowing the money with state bonds. But they are balking at the size of the bond package. Voter opposition is greater for the state bonds with the highest price tags (Propositions 1B, 1D) than for those that cost less (Propositions 1C, 1E). And six in 10 voters say that the $43 billion total for the five bonds is simply too much money.

But the most difficult political hurdle for the infrastructure bonds may be voter distrust in state government. While Schwarzenegger has made a miraculous recovery in the polls in a year slightly less than half of the voters now approve of his job performance and want to re-elect him the public's confidence in state government remains near historic lows. Only about three in 10 Californians generally trust the government in Sacramento to do what is right. Fewer than three in 10 voters say they approve of the way that the Legislature is handling future planning. Only 12 percent of Californians have a great deal of confidence in the state government's ability to plan for the future. These negative views about state government are shared by both Republicans and Democrats and spell trouble for the bond package.

There are lessons from recent successes at the ballot box that could determine the outcome on Election Day. Californians will need to understand the details of these massive project plans and be convinced that the multibillion-dollar bonds will improve their daily lives. Voters will also want to be sure that partisan leaders are all on the same page in making this major investment. So far, Republican Schwarzenegger and the Democrats in the Legislature have fallen short on both counts. With time running out before the election, voters want to see if this bond package is the real deal that will brighten the future in their part of the state, or if they should wait until next year for a better plan from Sacramento.

Publications

PPIC Statewide Survey: Californians and the Future, October 2006

PPIC Statewide Survey: Californians and the Future, September 2006

California 2025: Taking on the Future