By Mark Baldassare
, president and CEO,
Public Policy Institute of California
This opinion article appeared in theSacramento Bee
on March 26, 2009
With a history-making presidential election in their rearview mirrors, Californians are trudging back to the polls on May 19 with a less exciting but critically important task. They are the deciders on the state's fiscal future. Right now, they are giving a lukewarm reception to the complex set of six budget-related ballot measures that the governor and Legislature need the voters to support to close a multibillion-dollar state budget gap.
Voters' disappointment with the state's elected leaders is deep, and the temptation to send a message by voting down these propositions is strong.
Fewer than one in five likely voters are very closely following the special election at this point, according to the latest PPIC Statewide Survey completed last week. Still, when likely voters are read the ballot titles and labels, five of the six measures that were crafted to help fill a massive budget deficit fall short of the majority support needed to pass (39 percent for 1A, 44 percent for 1B, 37 percent for 1C, 48 percent for 1D, 47 percent for 1E).
The only big winner is 1F – a law that would punish state elected officials by making them go without pay raises in years when the state is running a deficit. Proposition 1F is favored by 81 percent of the electorate, which reflects the extent of voter frustration today.
The conventional wisdom about the special election is that our state elected officials will persuade the voters that we need to pass their measures to avoid fiscal calamity. In the March 2004 primary, Californians were asked by the governor and the Legislature to pass two fiscal measures needed to close a multibillion-dollar budget gap. The voters agreed.
But that was then, and this is now. Voters' approval ratings of their state elected officials have deteriorated badly – from 61 percent to 33 percent for the governor and from 34 percent to 11 percent for the Legislature. Today, about three in four voters believe the state is heading in the wrong direction. The simple political fact is that the state's elected officials have a shrinking fan base compared with five years ago.
How many think of their state lawmakers as the sources of the problems – rather than the providers of solutions? The latest PPIC Statewide Survey finds just one in four likely voters looking more favorably toward the six ballot measures because they are a part of the governor's and Legislature's budget plan. In this relatively small group of voters, Propositions 1A to 1F are ahead by wide margins. But most voters are either indifferent or negatively disposed toward the propositions when told about their origins.
Indeed, the governor's popularity on the eve of the last statewide special election in 2005 was eerily similar to today – 38 percent approved and 57 percent disapproved of the way he was handling his job. Voters then went to the polls and rejected his package of fiscal, governance, and school reforms by wide margins.
For the proponents of the special election ballot measures this year, the time is short and the search for the message and messengers is still a work in progress. With 85 percent of likely voters already describing the state's budget situation as a "big problem," it is unlikely that majority support for the ballot measures will be reached by simply providing more campaign information about the state's dire fiscal circumstances.
In hindsight, a political opportunity was lost when the focus of the special election ballot became the current budget gap instead of long-term reform. In our recent survey, majorities of voters favor the proposal to change our partisan primary system – an element of the recent budget deal that is on hold for the 2010 ballot.
Many voters like the idea of lowering the two-thirds vote needed for the Legislature to pass a state budget. But instead of being called upon to act as change agents, voters are being asked to be the cleanup crew for the latest fiscal meltdown in Sacramento.
California's federal elected officials may yet play the decisive role. Our U.S. senators and House members may be in the best position to make a credible pitch for the six fiscal measures. They enjoy higher job approval ratings in the wake of federal actions on the economic crisis. And state elected officials may be wise to involve the California congressional delegation for another reason. Depending on what happens this spring, California may be returning to the federal government for help.