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Press Release · January 27, 2010

Cut Prison Spending, Spare Schools, Worried Californians Say

Campaign 2010: Campbell Tops GOP Senate Field, Whitman Boosts Lead

SAN FRANCISCO, January 27, 2010—Most Californians would be willing to pay higher taxes to maintain current funding for public schools and most favor spending cuts in prisons and corrections, according to a survey released today by the Public Policy Institute of California (PPIC) with funding from The James Irvine Foundation. But while majorities want to protect K–12 schools and cut spending on prisons, Californians are as divided as their leaders on the overall strategy to deal with the state’s $20 billion budget deficit: 41 percent favor a mix of spending cuts and tax increases and 37 percent favor mostly spending cuts (9% favor mostly tax increases). They are in more agreement when it comes to asking the federal government for help, as Governor Arnold Schwarzenegger has done: 66 percent say California should seek federal aid to help meet its budget obligations.

Californians start this election year feeling gloomy about the economy and pessimistic about the state’s direction. Their approval ratings for the governor (30%) and legislature (18%) are near record lows (27% governor, 17% legislature). Their view of state government has hit a new, grim milestone: just 28 percent of all adults say the two branches of government will be able to work together to accomplish a lot in the next year—the lowest level since the PPIC survey began asking the question in January 2006.

As they look to Washington, 61 percent of Californians approve of President Obama’s job performance as he begins his second year in office—a 9-point drop since February 2009. Congress gets a much lower approval rating than the president—36 percent—similar to January 2009 (37%). While a majority of Californians (56%) think the president and Congress will be able to work together and accomplish a lot this year, this is a steep, 25-point drop from January 2009 (81%).

“Residents have deep concerns about the economy and their own budgets, and they don’t see how California’s leaders will help guide the state through these difficult times,” says Mark Baldassare, PPIC president and CEO. “At the national level, Californians had high hopes last year, but reality has set in that accomplishments will be difficult to achieve in Washington, too.”

Campbell Captures Early Lead in Senate Primary Race

Five months before the primary, former Congressman Tom Campbell has emerged as the early leader in the Republican campaign to oust U.S. Senator Barbara Boxer. Soon after bowing out of the governor’s race to run for senator, Campbell leads among likely voters in the GOP primary with 27 percent support, while 16 percent support businesswoman Carly Fiorina and 8 percent favor state Assemblyman Chuck DeVore. Campbell leads among likely voters with household incomes below $80,000 and above $80,000, and among both men and women. Likely voters in the Republican primary include the 12 percent of independent voters who say they will choose to vote on a Republican ballot.

Campbell’s departure from the governor’s race benefited businesswoman Meg Whitman, who increased her lead over state Insurance Commissioner Steve Poizner (41% to 11%) since December (32% to 8%). Whitman leads among GOP likely voters with household incomes above and below $80,000, and among both men and women. Men (48%) are much more likely than women (34%) to support her.

But the highest percentage of GOP likely voters is undecided in both the Senate (48%) and gubernatorial (44%) primaries. Among female likely voters, more than half (57% Senate, 53% governor) are undecided.

Fall Matchups: Brown Has Small Edge—Boxer, Campbell in Close Race

In a hypothetical matchup for the November election, unofficial Democratic candidate Jerry Brown retains a narrow lead over Whitman (41% to 36%) among likely voters, with 23 percent undecided. Support for the candidates runs along party lines: 69 percent of Democrats favor Brown and 73 percent of Republicans favor Whitman. Independents favor Brown over Whitman, 36 percent to 28 percent, with 36 percent undecided. Brown, the current attorney general and former governor, had a 6-point lead over Whitman in December. His 15-point lead over Poizner (44% to 29%) is also similar to December’s (47% to 31%).

In a theoretical Senate matchup, Boxer falls short of a majority against each of the potential challengers. She and Campbell are in a close contest (45% to 41%). While 79 percent of Democratic likely voters favor Boxer, 84 percent of Republican likely voters favor Campbell. Independents are more divided but favor Boxer (42% to 37%). Gender differences among likely voters are stark: Boxer has a 14-point lead among female likely voters (50% to 36%), and Campbell has a 6-point lead among men (46% to 40%). Boxer has an 8-point lead over Fiorina (48% to 40%) and DeVore (47% to 39%).

These hypothetical matchups reflect Boxer’s approval ratings. Among likely voters, 49 percent approve and 44 percent disapprove of her job performance. In February 2004, nine months before she was last re-elected, her approval rating was similar (52%), but her disapproval rating was lower (34%). Views of Boxer follow partisan lines, with 80 percent of Democratic likely voters approving of her and 84 percent of GOP likely voters disapproving. Among independent likely voters, 46 percent approve and 42 percent disapprove of her job performance. By comparison, 50 percent of likely voters approve of Senator Dianne Feinstein—who is not running for re-election this year—compared to 41 percent who disapprove.

Half Would Pay More Taxes To Spare Higher Education, Health and Human Services

The candidates are campaigning in a state where an overwhelming number of residents (86%) continue to believe that California is in a serious (62%) or moderate (24%) recession, where 74 percent see things generally headed in the wrong direction, and where 75 percent say the budget situation is a big problem. A majority (60%) believe that state government could spend less and still provide the same level of services, but this is a record low in the six times the PPIC survey has asked the question and 10 points lower than the last time it was asked (70%, January 2008).

When asked which of the four main areas of state spending they would most want to protect from budget cuts, 58 percent choose K–12 public education—the area most Californians have wanted to spare each of the nine times PPIC has posed the question. Fewer choose health and human services (17%) or higher education (15%). Far fewer choose prisons and corrections (6%). Californians back up these views when asked if they would be willing to pay higher taxes to maintain current funding for these areas:

  • K–12 public education: 66 percent yes, 32 percent no
  • Higher education: 50 percent yes, 48 percent no
  • Health and human services: 50 percent yes, 47 percent no
  • Prisons and corrections: 11 percent yes, 87 percent no

Across political parties, and regional and demographic groups, residents are most willing to pay more taxes to maintain funding at K–12 schools, with 79 percent of Democrats, 58 percent of independents, and 49 percent of Republicans saying they would be willing to do so. Prisons and corrections garner less than 15 percent support for higher taxes across parties, regions, and demographic groups.

On the flip side of this question—cutting spending to help reduce the budget deficit—Californians are least supportive of reductions in K–12 schools (82% oppose, 16% support) and largely opposed to cuts in higher education (65% oppose, 32% support) or health and human services (62% oppose, 34% support). A large majority (70% vs. 27% oppose) favor spending cuts in prisons and corrections.

While just 21 percent of Californians have a favorable impression of Schwarzenegger’s final State of the State address on January 6 (37% unfavorable, 31% volunteer that they haven’t heard about it), they are more supportive of his budget proposal when they are read a brief description of what he says it will achieve (question 36, page 31): 55 percent say they are satisfied. A majority (56% vs. 40% yes) do not think tax increases should be a part of the budget plan.

Whom do they trust to make tough choices about the state budget? Thirty-eight percent say Democrats in the legislature, 22 percent say Republicans in the legislature, 17 percent say the governor. In the 13 times the PPIC survey has asked this question, pluralities of Californians have chosen Democrats in the legislature 12 times. But the percentage making this choice has never exceeded 39 percent.

On the issue of long-term reform of the budget process, most (72%) Californians believe that they—not their leaders—should make reform decisions at the ballot box.

However, Californians’ knowledge is far from perfect when it comes to understanding the budget. Only 28 percent correctly identify personal income tax as the area representing most of the revenue. Thirty percent name the sales tax as the biggest source of revenue when it is actually a distant No. 2.

Asked to name the area that represents the most spending, only 16 percent of residents correctly identify K–12 education. Half (49%) say the most money goes to prisons and corrections, although this category is actually in fourth place, behind schools, health and human services, and higher education.

“If Californians are going to rely on the ballot box for making critical choices about the budget process, the state’s leaders need to do a better job educating the decision makers about where the money comes from and where it goes,” Baldassare says.

More Key Findings

  • Support for strict spending cap, lower threshold on budget approval—page 21
    A majority (69%) of Californians favors strict limits on the amount that state spending can increase. Half (51%) favor lowering the two-thirds legislative vote requirement to pass a state budget.
  • Change the tax system? Yes, say Californians—pages 21–22
    Most (84%) say major or minor changes are needed in the state and local tax system, but 53 percent view the system as fair. The percentage calling it very or moderately fair has dropped 13 points since June 2003.
  • Public employee pensions seen as a problem—page 22
    A majority of Californians say the amount of money spent on the public employee pension system is a problem (41% big, 35% somewhat of a problem), and the percentage calling it a big problem has grown 10 points since January 2005. Two in three (67%) would favor changing the system for new public employees from defined benefits to one similar to a 401(k) plan.


The PPIC Statewide Survey has provided policymakers, the media, and the general public with objective information on the perceptions, opinions, and public policy preferences of California residents since 1998. This survey is part of a series that examines the social, economic, and political trends that influence public policy preferences and ballot choices. It is supported with funding from The James Irvine Foundation. Findings are based on a telephone survey of 2,001 California adult residents interviewed on landlines and cell phones from January 12–19, 2010. Interviews were conducted in English or Spanish, according to respondents’ preferences. The sampling error is ±2 percent for all adults, ±3 percent for the 1,223 likely voters, and ±5 percent for the 425 Republican primary likely voters who were asked questions about the Senate and gubernatorial races. For more information on methodology, see page 25.

Mark Baldassare is president and CEO of 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.

PPIC is dedicated to informing and improving public policy in California through independent, objective, nonpartisan research on major economic, social, and political issues. The institute was established in 1994 with an endowment from William R. Hewlett. As a private operating foundation, 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.