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Press Release · September 10, 2009

Fed Up With State Leadership, Californians Want Change But Approach Reform Cautiously

They Favor Open Primary but Oppose Part-time Legislature

SAN FRANCISCO, California, September 10, 2009—Californians’ trust in their state government has reached a record low, and their desire for change is high. But they are cautious about what kind of reform they are willing to support. When asked about two ideas that may reach the ballot, 70 percent support a shift to an open primary system, but only 23 percent favor changing the legislature to part-time status.

Californians’ distrust in state government runs deep. Nearly three-fourths (73%) say it is pretty much run by a few big interests looking out for themselves, a new high in the 11-year history of the PPIC Statewide Survey. Just 20 percent say that state government is run for the benefit of all of the people. A strong majority (62%) say state government wastes a lot of the money Californians pay in taxes, close to the record-high 63 percent who held this view in May.

Residents have more confidence in their own abilities to make policy decisions. A majority (56%) say that decisions made through the initiative process are probably better than those made by the governor and legislature and far fewer (28%) say they are probably worse. And Californians continue to feel that Proposition 13 and term limits—two constitutional changes made by initiative—have mainly been good for the state.

“Change is in the air, but Californians are proceeding with caution,” says Mark Baldassare, president and CEO of PPIC. “They are generally satisfied with the changes they’ve made to the constitution, and most do not think it needs major revisions.”

Worrying About Budget, Wanting Reform

The state’s protracted budget negotiations have made a strong impression on Californians. Nearly all (96%) view the budget situation as a problem, with 78 percent seeing it as a big problem and 18 percent calling it somewhat of a problem. The 78 percent figure matches a record high first reached in September 2008. A majority (60%) are very concerned about the effect of spending cuts on local government services—far more than when PPIC asked a similar but less detailed question five years ago (35% August 2004).

Most (80%) Californians say the state budget process is in need of major changes, a steady increase since March 2008 (65% March 2008, 65% May 2008, 76% September 2008, 78% May 2009). This view is held across political parties, demographic groups, and regions. Californians were asked to consider three fiscal reform ideas under discussion:

  • Spending cap: Most (65%) say it would be a good idea to strictly limit increases in state spending each year (28% bad idea).
  • Two-thirds vote to pass a budget: A majority (53%) say it would be a good idea to lower the threshold needed for budget passage to 55 percent of the legislature (38% bad idea).
  • Two-thirds vote for local special taxes: Half (50%) say it would be a good idea to lower this requirement to 55 percent of voters (42% bad idea).

California’s bruising budget battles have brought calls to review the constitution. But only 33 percent of Californians say major changes to the constitution are needed, while 36 percent say minor changes are needed and 24 percent say the constitution is fine as it is.

Split-roll, Term Limit Change Draws Support

Majorities continue to view two landmark initiatives as being good for California: Proposition 13 (55% mostly a good thing, 30% mostly a bad thing, 12% don’t know), which limits property taxes on both residential and commercial buildings, and term limits (59% good thing, 15% a bad thing, 23% no difference), which limits state legislators’ terms to six years in the assembly and eight in the senate.

But residents also support changes to these measures. A majority (58%) say it would be a good idea to tax commercial properties according to current market value, known as a “split roll.” A majority (65%) also say it would be a good idea to modify term limits by reducing the total number of years lawmakers could serve—from 14 to 12—but allowing years of service to be in either house or a combination of both.

Even though residents are pleased with direct democracy, overwhelming majorities favor two possible reforms to the initiative process:

  • Increasing public disclosure of funding sources for signature gathering and campaigns (81% favor, 14% oppose)
  • Having a period of time in which the initiative sponsor and the legislature could meet to see if a compromise is possible before putting the measure on the ballot (80% favor, 15% oppose)

Two Legislative Reforms, Two Different Results

Support has grown since March for a change in the state’s primary system that would allow voters to cast ballots for any candidate, with the top two vote-getters advancing to the general election regardless of party. Today a strong majority (70%) say that the proposal is a good idea (23% bad idea), a 9-point increase from March (61% good idea, 27% bad idea). More than two in three voters across parties and majorities across regions and demographic groups agree.

But residents’ negative views of their full-time legislature do not mean they see a shift to a part-time legislature as a solution: 44 percent say it would be a bad thing, 23 percent a good thing, and 27 percent say it would make no difference.

Pessimism About State’s Direction, Low Ratings For Leaders

Californians’ perception of the economy has improved since July, perhaps in response to recent positive economic indicators. But residents’ views are far from positive: 67 percent say the state can expect bad times financially in the next 12 months, compared to 26 percent who expect good times (75% bad times, 18% good times in July). Slightly fewer say the state is heading in the wrong direction this month than in July (72% today, 79% July), although at least 60 percent have held this negative view since March 2008.

The negative views about the direction of the state are reflected in views about state leaders. Governor Arnold Schwarzenegger’s approval rating (30%) is near his record low in July (28%), and his disapproval rating has hit a new high of 61 percent. The legislature’s rating (21%) inched up from its low (17% July). Californians’ approval of their own legislators (34%) remains near its lowest level (32% March 2009).

A Rosier View of Washington—51% Favor Health Care Changes

Californians’ opinions of their elected officials in Washington are markedly higher. A solid majority (63% approve, 32% disapprove) approve of President Barack Obama’s performance, similar to his approval rating in July (65%) but a decline from May (72%). While disapproval of the president has increased in both parties, it rose a steep 18 points among Republicans (68% today, 50% May).

California’s U.S. senators each get majority support. Both have seen increases in approval since September 2008, with 54 percent approving of Sen. Dianne Feinstein’s job performance today (48% September 2008) and 53 percent approving of Sen. Barbara Boxer’s (44% September 2008). House Speaker Nancy Pelosi has a 49 percent approval rating, also up from September 2008 (40%).

Although just 39 percent approve of the job Congress is doing—a decline from 47 percent approval in May—Californians rate their own representatives higher. A majority (56%) approve of the way their own House members handle the job, up 7 points from September 2008 (49% approve).

How do Californians feel about Washington’s impact on the state’s economy? Half (50%) say the federal government’s actions in dealing with the financial crisis will help and 43 percent say they will not. The percentage saying that federal actions will help has increased 11 points since the PPIC Statewide Survey first asked this question in October 2008 (39% yes, 47% no), and is up 6 points from January 2009 (44% yes, 43% no). However, 56 percent oppose additional federal spending to stimulate the economy, while 38 percent support it.

When asked generally about the major federal policy issue of health care, 51 percent say they support proposed changes to the system being developed by Congress and the Obama administration, while 38 percent are opposed. The state’s residents are somewhat more likely to support the proposed changes than adults are nationwide, according to an ABC News/Washington Post poll in August (45% support, 50% oppose). California’s likely voters are more divided (46% support, 42% oppose) than residents overall. And the state’s partisan differences are stark: 69 percent of Democrats support and 71 percent of Republicans oppose the proposed changes. Californians are more supportive when asked whether the government should create an insurance plan to compete with private insurers: 62 percent are in favor and 33 percent are opposed.


  • Nearly half concerned about job loss—pages 8, 9
    Jobs and the economy top the list of issues that Californians consider most important, and nearly half say they are very (30%) or somewhat concerned (19%) that they or someone in their family will lose a job in the next year. Another 9 percent volunteer that they have had a job loss in the family. Concern about job loss has declined since January (58%) but is about the same as in May (47%).
  • Recession or not, Californians see immigrants as a benefit—page 24
    A majority (58%) say immigrants are a benefit to the state because of their hard work and job skills rather than a burden (35%) because they use public services. Although there are deep partisan and racial/ethnic divisions on this issue, the percentage of residents who see immigrants as a benefit has remained near 60 percent since February 2004.
  • Eight years after 9/11: More confidence that U.S. can prevent terrorism at home—page 25
    Strong majorities are somewhat (48%) or very (21%) confident that U.S. intelligence and law enforcement agencies will be able to prevent terrorist attacks in the nation, an increase of 14 points since August 2004 (43% somewhat, 12% very).


This is the 101st PPIC Statewide Survey in a series that has generated a database that includes the responses of more than 216,000 Californians It is the 37th survey in the Californians and Their Government series and is supported with funding from The James Irvine Foundation. It examines the social, economic, and political trends that influence public policy preferences and ballot choices. Findings are based on a telephone survey of 2,006 California adult residents interviewed from August 26–September 2, 2009, on landlines and cell phones, in English or Spanish. The sampling error for all adults is ±2 percent. For the 1,291 likely voters, it is ±2.7 percent. For more information on methodology, see page 27.

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.