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As The Nation Goes, So Goes California? Partisanship Returns With A Vengeance

Big Concern About State Budget, Little Consensus About Solutions; Most Residents Pessimistic About Iraq Election

SAN FRANCISCO, California, January 27, 2005 — The bipartisan support that characterized Governor Arnold Schwarzenegger’s first year in office shows signs of cracking under the strain of a lingering budget crisis and renewed concern about the quality of public education, according to a new survey released by the Public Policy Institute of California (PPIC) and The James Irvine Foundation.

While overall support for the governor remains high – 60 percent of Californians say they approve of his performance – the percentage of Democrats and independents who disapprove of the job he is doing has grown substantially from one year ago. Democrats are now more likely to disapprove (49%) than approve (43%) of the governor’s job performance, a marked shift from one year ago (46% approve, 27% disapprove). While six in 10 independents still give the governor positive marks overall – the same as a year ago – his disapproval ratings among this group have nearly doubled (from 18% to 32%).

When it comes to the three major issues that Californians want the state’s elected officials to tackle this year, support for the governor proves more elusive. Education (22%) has resurfaced as the top policy concern among Californians (up from 15% one year ago), followed by the state budget (20%), and the economy and jobs (15%). Currently, a majority of state residents disapprove of Governor Schwarzenegger’s performance with regard to schools (34% approve, 51% disapprove). And while a majority (56%) support his handling of economic issues, his approval ratings in handling the state budget have declined in the past year, falling from 54 percent to 48 percent. Driving the disappointing numbers on education and the state budget is a sharp partisan split: While Republicans remain supportive of the governor’s policies, Democrats and independents are far less charitable. Seventy-two percent of Democrats and 54 percent of independents disapprove of his handling of education issues.

“Californians like Governor Schwarzenegger, but they no longer view him as being above the political fray,” says PPIC Statewide Survey Director Mark Baldassare. “This is problematic because politics-as-usual is not an option for the governor – his plan to take a bold reform agenda to the people this year still requires broad bipartisan support.”

In Us We Trust: Californians Want to Set Budget Priorities

While education has claimed top billing, state budget issues weigh heavily on weary state residents. As in January 2004, the vast majority of Californians (70%) – and 76 percent of likely voters – view the multi-billion dollar gap between revenues and spending as a big problem. Now, however, they do not endorse the governor’s budget: 38 percent of residents say they are satisfied and 55 percent say they are unsatisfied with his proposal. Last year, 57 percent were satisfied and 30 percent were unsatisfied with Schwarzenegger’s plan.

Who do Californians want to make the tough choices involved in the current state budget? Thirty-five percent favor Democrats in the legislature, 29 percent prefer Governor Schwarzenegger, and 18 percent prefer Republicans in the legislature. A year ago, the governor was preferred over Democrats in the legislature by 33 percent to 27 percent. The increased support for the legislature on this dimension is notable, give that their dismal approval ratings (37%) remain virtually unchanged from one year ago. Ultimately, state residents trust themselves to make the call: 68 percent believe voters should make decisions about the budget process rather than abdicate that responsibility to the governor and legislature (27%).

Taxes or Spending Cuts? Yes, But …

The governor’s proposed budget included a variety of spending reductions but no new taxes. Where does the public stand? Forty percent favor a mixture of spending cuts and tax increases, 34 percent favor mostly spending cuts, and only 11 percent prefer mostly tax increases. Although 45 percent of Californians oppose new taxes, 49 percent think tax increases should have been included in the budget plan – a seven-point increase over a year ago that reflects growing support for taxes among Democrats and independents. So who should pay to help get the state out of its current financial hole? Someone else. As in past PPIC surveys, a majority of Californians support raising the tax rate on the state’s top income bracket (69% favor, 28% oppose) and increasing cigarette and alcohol taxes (74% favor, 25% oppose). However, they steadfastly oppose increasing the state portion of the sales tax (64% oppose, 32% favor).

Residents are also not willing to bite the bullet when it comes to cuts in spending. Most Californians (73%) express concern about the effects of budget cuts in the governor’s plan. And most are also opposed to spending cuts in the major programs that dominate the state budget. Rather than cutting program funding, majorities support spending more or the same amount on K-12 education (62% more, 27% same amount), health and human services (47% more, 33% same amount), and colleges and universities (44% more, 37% same amount). Support for spending cuts (46%) is apparent in only one area — prisons and corrections.

Political Reform a Mixed Bag for State Residents

While Governor Schwarzenegger’s State of the State address was moderately well received (42% favorable, 32% unfavorable), his request that the legislature go into special session clearly resonated with state residents: 67 percent say they approve of this plan. Residents are also supportive of the governor’s call for reorganizing state agencies and eliminating unnecessary boards and commissions, with most saying these reforms would help a lot (25%) or somewhat (47%) with the state’s fiscal situation.

The governor’s suggestion that he might call a special election in 2005 to allow voters to decide on a package of reforms receives a far more mixed response. Half of state residents (50%) and likely voters (52%) say it would be better to wait until the next scheduled election in June 2006. When residents are told the estimated price tag for a special election – $50 million to $70 million – support drops to 20 percent. Californians are also mixed in their responses to the specific set of reforms being proposed for the special ballot:

  • Redistricting Reform – 44 percent support legislative redistricting reform. A majority of Republicans (56%) support such a reform, while a majority of Democrats (53%) oppose it.
  • Fiscal Reform – 59 percent support limiting state spending to what is raised in revenues in a given year.
  • Pension Reform – 61 percent support changing the pension system for new public employees from defined benefits to defined contributions. However, only three in 10 residents view the pension and retirement system as a big problem for state and local government budgets.

Partisan Differences Abound Over Social Security, Taxes, Iraq

As President George W. Bush begins his second term in office, Californians are resigned to a national schism: 60 percent believe the county will be divided under his leadership, while 35 percent say the nation will unite. In January 2001, 50 percent expected a nation divided while 44 percent were betting on unity. Demonstrating the overall lack of consensus are Californians’ views of the president’s capabilities as a leader as well as his overall job approval ratings: 51 percent agree that the president will be a strong and capable leader in his second term and 45 percent disagree, while 52 percent disapprove of the way he is handling his duties and 46 percent approve.

Attitudes about important national issues also reflect the charged partisan atmosphere. Californians are divided about the Bush administration’s plan to allow people to invest their Social Security contributions in the stock market – 49 percent support such a plan and 46 percent oppose it. If such a program existed, 36 percent of state residents say they would invest in the market while 60 percent would not. A rare point of agreement? Few state residents (29%) – Democrats (26%) and Republicans (30%) – buy the hype that the program is in crisis. But 42 percent do believe that Social Security has major problems.

Similar to their view of retirement programs, few Californians (29%) are inclined to believe that the federal budget deficit is a crisis rather than a major problem (50%). However, the consensus ends there: Exactly half of state residents oppose making the 2001 temporary tax cuts permanent, while 37 percent support the notion. Sixty percent of Republicans support a permanent cut, while 66 percent of Democrats oppose it. On a related note, a majority of residents (53%) disapprove of the way the president – who supports permanent cuts – is handling the federal budget and taxes.

A large majority of Californians (63%) are also critical of the way President Bush is handling the situation in Iraq, and only 30 percent say things are going very (5%) or somewhat (25%) well there. As a further sign of pessimism, only three in 10 have at least some confidence that the upcoming Iraqi elections will produce a stable and effective government. While Republicans are more likely to express confidence in the election process (51%), only 14 percent of Democrats hold out such hope.

More Key Findings

  • Fairy Wings? — Page 9
    Governor Schwarzenegger receives poor ratings on another State of the State topic – transportation. Currently, 35 percent approve and 37 percent disapprove of his handling of this issue. The governor receives less than majority support from Republicans, Democrats, and independents on this subject.
  • State: Right Track — Nation: Wrong Track — Pages 13, 21
    More state residents than not believe the state is currently headed in the right direction (46% right direction, 41% wrong direction) and see good economic times ahead (47% good times, 39% bad times). However, a majority (51%) think the nation is headed in the wrong direction. They are somewhat more optimistic about national economic conditions (48% good times, 43% bad times).
  • Distrust of Government — Pages 24, 25
    Only one in three Californians say they can trust the state or federal governments to do what is right just about always (5% state government, 6% federal government) or most of the time (25% state government, 26% federal government).

      About the Survey

      The California State Budget and Fiscal System Survey — a collaborative effort of the Public Policy Institute of California and The James Irvine Foundation — is a special edition of the PPIC Statewide Survey. This is the fourth in a series intended to raise public awareness, inform decisionmakers, and stimulate public discussions about the current budget and the underlying state and local finance systems. Findings of this survey are based on a telephone survey of 2,002 California adult residents interviewed between January 11 and January 18, 2005. Interviews were conducted in English or Spanish. The sampling error for the total sample is +/- 2%. The sampling error for subgroups is larger. For more information on methodology, see page 19.

      Mark Baldassare is research director at PPIC, where he holds the Arjay and Frances Fearing Miller Chair in Public Policy. He is founder of the PPIC Statewide Survey, which he has directed since 1998. His recent book, A California State of Mind: The Conflicted Voter in a Changing World, is available at www.ppic.org.

      PPIC is a private, nonprofit organization dedicated to improving public policy through objective, nonpartisan research on the economic, social, and political issues that affect Californians. The institute was established in 1994 with an endowment from William R. Hewlett. PPIC does not take or support positions on any ballot measure or on any local, state, or federal legislation, nor does it endorse, support, or oppose any political parties or candidates for public office.

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