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Press Release · January 18, 2001

Electricity Issue Registers With Californians

Most Believe Crisis Will Harm Economy; Consumer Confidence Falters, But Some Optimism Remains

SAN FRANCISCO, California, January 18, 2001 – Energy woes in the Golden State have captured the attention of state residents and surged to the top of their list of concerns, according to a new survey released today by the Public Policy Institute of California (PPIC). And although they are divided about solutions, Californians overwhelmingly believe that the problem will cause significant damage to the state’s economy over the next few years.

Eighty-four percent of Californians say they are closely following news reports about the cost, supply, and demand for electricity in California, a sharp increase from the 60 percent who said they were following news about the electricity situation in October 2000. And for the first time in two years, education issues are not dominating the policy spotlight in California: When asked to name the number one issue that the governor and state legislature should work on this year, Californians are now as likely to name electricity prices and deregulation (25%) – an issue that has not registered as a concern in previous surveys – as public schools and education (26%). No other issue was mentioned by more than 4 percent of residents.

Residents are not just tuned in to the state’s power problem – they take it very seriously: 92 percent say they view the electricity market in California as a problem, with 74% calling it a “big problem.” And 82 percent of Californians believe that this issue will damage the state’s economy in the next few years, with 56 percent saying it will hurt the economy “a great deal.”

“Californians are deeply worried about the implications of this crisis for the state economy and their own pocketbooks,” said PPIC Statewide Survey Director Mark Baldassare. “Right now, they are still holding out hope, but their optimism – as well as the political fortunes of state leaders – may suffer if they fail to see some action soon.”

Governor Davis continues to receive high overall ratings, despite the fact that a majority of residents disapprove of his handling of the state’s electricity problem. Sixty-three percent of Californians say they approve of Davis’ performance as governor, even though 62 percent disapprove of his efforts to ease the electricity crisis. These ratings appear to mirror the divide between residents’ general optimism on one hand and their increasing concern about economic prospects on the other. Although 62 percent say that the state is headed in the right direction – up from 59 percent in October – the number of Californians who express optimism about the economy has dropped precipitously. Today, only half (51%) of state residents say they think economic good times will continue in the next year, compared to 72 percent in August. The vast majority of residents who now express concern about the economy and their personal finances also view the state’s electricity quandary as a big problem and disapprove of the governor’s handling of the issue.

Overall, Californians blame deregulation (47%) and electric companies (25%) rather than consumers (10%) or the current governor and legislature (9%) for the electricity situation facing the state. They are divided about possible solutions to the problem, with 37 percent advocating re-regulation of the industry, 32 percent the construction of more power plants, and 20 percent conservation efforts. Only 1 percent of Californians see raising electricity prices as a preferred solution to the crisis. Interestingly, Los Angeles County residents (42%) are the most likely to support re-regulation and Latinos (32%) are most likely to prefer conservation.

Schools Remain on Public’s Radar

Heightened anxiety about electricity has not diminished interest in California’s public education system – it remains a top issue for most Californians. While the majority of residents (52%) continue to see public school quality as a “big problem,” a growing number believe that schools are improving. Indeed, 31 percent say that the quality of California’s K-12 schools have improved over the past two years – compared to 22 percent in January 2000 – while 39 percent believe the quality has stayed the same and 22 percent think it has gotten worse.

Surprisingly, the growing satisfaction with California’s public schools does not appear to benefit Governor Davis, who continues to devote considerable effort to education policy: Support for his handling of the state’s K-12 education system has dropped over the past year. Currently, 45 percent of Californians say they approve of the governor’s education-related efforts, while 32 percent disapprove. In January 2000, 51 percent approved of his handling of public education and 28 percent disapproved.

When asked to rate the effectiveness of recent reforms, Californians say that reducing class sizes (43%) has made more difference in improving the quality of education than increasing per pupil spending (17%) or student testing (13%). Nevertheless, the majority of residents think that all three policy efforts undertaken by the state in recent years have made at least a moderate difference in improving schools.

Election Fallout

Despite the controversy surrounding George W. Bush’s election – and the strong support that Al Gore received in the Golden State – 54 percent of Californians believe Bush will be a strong and capable president. However, 50 percent also believe the country will be divided in the coming four years, making it hard for the new president to accomplish a great deal. Expectations about Bush’s performance in office correlate closely with how people voted: Almost all Bush voters (94%) feel he will make a strong and capable president, compared to only 24 percent of Gore voters. Seventy-five percent of Bush voters think the country will unite behind him while 73 percent of Gore voters think it will not.

The recent national election captured the attention of state residents. Sixty percent of Californians say that they have “very closely” followed news reports about the election and 40 percent report having gone online to get news and information about the race. The lingering effects of the traumatic election are evident in public attitudes about the Electoral College and voting technology. Sixty-four percent of Californians say they would support eliminating the Electoral College and moving to a system of direct elections. Not surprisingly, Democrats (75%) are far more supportive of the idea than are Republicans (41%). Fifty-one percent of state residents say they would prefer to use state funds to upgrade technology at local polling places rather than continuing to use paper ballots.

Not Even a Mouse…

Despite high expectations for e-commerce during the holiday season, Californians only slightly increased their online Christmas shopping this year. Twenty-four percent reported going online to purchase gifts during the holidays this year, compared to 20 percent one year ago. Twenty-six percent say they expect to purchase something over the Internet in the coming year, compared to 23 percent last January. San Francisco Bay area residents, non-Hispanic whites, and those with incomes over $80,000 were much more likely than Central Valley residents, Latinos, and those with incomes under $40,000 to make Internet purchases during the holidays.

Other Key Findings

  • Influence of Special Interests on Initiative Process – Page 4

Nine in ten Californians believe that the initiative process in California is controlled “a lot” (52%) or “somewhat” (40%) by special interests. A smaller majority (60%) also believes that state government is controlled by a few big interests.

  • Online Signature Gathering – Page 5

A majority of residents (61%) say they would oppose a new law allowing signature gathering for initiatives over the Internet.

  • Initiative Reform – Pages 4-6

Most Californians favor increasing public disclosure of initiative campaign finances (78%). They also support creating, for proposed initiatives, systems of review that seek to address problems with ballot language (77%) and raise constitutional or legal questions (88%) before initiatives are placed on the ballot.

  • Other Ratings of the Governor – Page 14

Majorities approve of Governor Davis’ handling of crime (54%) and budget (53%) issues. However, Californians are evenly split in their approval (41%) and disapproval (39%) of his efforts on transportation and traffic congestion issues. And more Californians disapprove of his handling of HMO reform and health care than approve (39% to 35%).

  • Trust in Government – Pages 17-20

Despite the fact that less than half of Californians trust their state government to do what is right always (7%) or most of the time (39%), they express more faith in state officials than in the federal government when it comes to fiscal management and problem solving.

About the Survey

The purpose of the PPIC Statewide Survey is to develop an in-depth profile of the social, economic, and political forces affecting California elections and public policy preferences. PPIC will conduct large-scale public opinion surveys on a regular basis leading up to the 2002 election cycle. Findings of the current survey are based on a telephone survey of 2,011 California adult residents interviewed from January 2 to January 8, 2001. Interviews were conducted in English or Spanish. The sampling error for the total sample is +/- 2%. The sampling error for the 1,593 registered voters is +/- 2.5%. For additional information on survey methodology, see page 29.

Dr. Mark Baldassare is a senior fellow and program director at PPIC. He is founder and director of the PPIC Statewide Survey, which he has conducted since 1998. For over two decades, he has directed surveys for the University of California, Irvine and major state news organizations. Dr. Baldassare is the author of numerous books, including California in the New Millennium: The Changing Social and Political Landscape (University of California Press, 2000).

PPIC is a private, nonprofit organization dedicated to objective, nonpartisan research on economic, social, and political issues that affect the lives of Californians. The Institute was established in 1994 with an endowment from William R. Hewlett.