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Press Release · May 21, 2001

Growing Pains: Energy, Economy Create Anxiety About Population Size

Broad Support for Higher Electricity Rates Vs. Cuts in State Programs; Residents Fatalistic About Growth, But Believe Planning Could Alleviate Problems

Different Regions View Growth Differently

Most Californians believe that the broader regions they live in have growth-related problems. Specifically, most say that traffic congestion (83%), the availability of affordable housing (73%), population growth and development (66%), air pollution (64%), and the lack of opportunities for well-paying jobs (61%) are problems in their area. However, the perception of each of these problems varies
greatly from region to region. San Francisco Bay Area residents, for example, are far more likely than residents in other parts of the state to view traffic (96%) and housing (91%) as problems, while more Central Valley residents view the lack of well-paying jobs (73%) as a problem, and Los Angeles County residents express greater concern about air pollution (78%). Asked about the biggest problem associated with growth, residents from Los Angeles (33%) and other Southern California counties (31%) say traffic congestion, Central Valley residents (33%) mention urban sprawl and the loss of open space, and Bay Area residents (39%) cite high housing costs.

Californians are also divided along regional lines when it comes to the question of where new growth should occur. Residents of the Bay Area (54%) and the Central Valley (51%) say that they prefer new growth take place within the developed areas of a region, while residents of Los Angeles (59%) and other Southern California counties (56%) believe it is better if new growth happens in the undeveloped areas on the outskirts of a region. Finally, while there is agreement across the state that an improving economy (41%), followed by increasing racial and ethnic diversity (23%), are the most positive consequences of population growth to date, residents are more at odds about the most important priority for growth planning. Residents of the Central Valley (50%), Los Angeles (42%), and other Southern California counties (45%) say that improving the economy should be the top priority, but Bay Area residents are evenly divided between improving the economy (36%) and environmental protection (36%).

“Californians are experiencing the state’s rapid growth in many different ways, a fact that goes a long way toward explaining their desire to decide growth issues on a local level,” says Dennis Collins, President of the James Irvine Foundation. “The key is to develop the capacity at the local level to manage growth wisely, while opening a statewide dialogue about the best ways to address our common concerns.”

Other Key Findings

  • Where Does Growth Come From? – Page 6
    Most Californians (55%) believe that the single biggest cause of California’s population growth is immigration, even though demographers cite births to current residents as the major factor.

  • Diversity Celebrated – Page 5
    Throughout the state and across racial and ethnic groups, more residents say that the state’s majority-minority status is a “good thing” (40%) than a “bad thing” (16%).

About the Survey

The survey on growth is a special edition of the PPIC Statewide Survey. It is the first in a four-year, multi-survey series on growth, land use, and the environment being produced in collaboration with The William and Flora Hewlett Foundation, The James Irvine Foundation, and The David and Lucile Packard Foundation. The purpose of this series is to inform policymakers, encourage discussion, and raise public awareness about the critical growth, development, and environmental challenges facing the state. Findings of the current survey are based on a telephone survey of 2,001 California adult residents interviewed from May 1 to May 9, 2001. Interviews were conducted in English or Spanish. The sampling error for the total sample is +/- 2%. For more information on survey methodology, see page 21.

Dr. Mark Baldassare is a senior fellow and program director at PPIC, where he holds the Arjay and Frances Miller Chair in Public Policy. He is founder and director of the PPIC Statewide Survey, which he has conducted since 1998. 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 Californians. The Institute was established in 1994 with an endowment from William R. Hewlett.

SAN FRANCISCO, California, May 21, 2001 – Reeling from an escalating energy crisis and a decelerating economy, Californians are increasingly bearish about population growth and its side effects, according to a new survey released today by the Public Policy Institute of California (PPIC), The William and Flora Hewlett Foundation, The James Irvine Foundation, and The David and Lucile Packard Foundation. Despite the positive social and economic effects of California’s past meteoric growth, Californians now believe that future population increases will make the state a less desirable place to live and say that the electricity situation – which they link to growth – has given them pause about government’s ability to plan for a more crowded future.

The large-scale public opinion survey of 2001 Californians finds that for the first time since the mid-90s, more Californians believe that the state is headed in the wrong direction (48%) rather than the right direction (44%). More Californians also expect bad economic times (56%) in the next year instead of good times (38%). The attitude adjustment has been swift: In January, a majority of residents still believed the state was headed in the right direction (62%) and expected good times financially in the coming year (51%).

As their economic outlook dims, residents find little to cheer about in the latest census numbers or future population projections. Eighty-two percent believe that population growth over the next two decades will make the state a less desirable place to live. Half of state residents also call the increase of 4 million people in the past decade a “bad thing,” while only 14 percent say it is a “good thing” and 36 percent say it has made no difference. Energy problems are adding to Californians’ concern about future population increases: Three in four Californians believe that there is a link between the state’s population growth and the recent electricity crisis, with 43 percent saying that population growth has contributed “a lot” to the supply problem. The crisis has also taken a toll on the public’s trust in state government to handle future growth. Sixty-seven percent of residents say that the electricity situation has made them less confident in the state government’s ability to plan and build for the future.

“Californians clearly see the electricity crisis as a harbinger of other growth-related problems,” says PPIC Statewide Survey Director Mark Baldassare. “This crisis and general economic uncertainty have severely undermined public confidence in California’s future and in its leaders.”

Indeed, approval ratings for Governor Gray Davis have dropped by a large margin since January. Fewer than half of all Californians (46%) now say they approve of the way he is handling his job as governor, well below his 63 percent approval rating in January. Residents also remain highly critical of the governor’s handling of the electricity crisis specifically, with 60 percent saying they disapprove. While he maintains higher overall ratings (57%), President George W. Bush also receives low marks on his handling of the state’s electricity problem, with 56 percent saying they disapprove. Interestingly, while Governor Davis and President Bush get poor marks on electricity, they have largely escaped blame for the problem. Residents are much more likely to fault utility companies (32%) and the former governor and legislature (26%) for the electricity situation than they are the current governor and legislature (10%), power generators (10%), the Bush Administration and federal government (8%), or California consumers (8%).

Overall, 43 percent of Californians now say that electricity is the most important issue facing California today, followed by growth (13%), education (6%), and jobs and the economy (6%). In January, residents named schools and electricity evenly at about 25 percent each. Ninety-five percent of residents believe that the cost, supply, and demand for electricity is a problem, with 82 percent saying it is a “big” problem. And the problem has amplified their general pessimism about the economy: 86 percent say that electricity issues will hurt the economy over the next few years, with 62 percent believing it will hurt the economy a “great deal.” Eighty-two percent say they are closely following news stories about the crisis.

When asked to consider solutions to the electricity problem, Californians prefer building more power plants (43%) to re-regulation of the industry (27%), conservation (18%), federal price controls (8%), or higher rates (1%). In January, residents most favored re-regulation (37%) and power plant construction (32%). But despite their support for the development of more supply, residents are not willing to relax the air quality standards that regulate power plants at this point in the crisis: 70 percent say they are unwilling to accept this tradeoff. However, they are willing to make a key financial tradeoff: 58 percent say they would rather the state issue bonds that will be paid by consumers through higher rates than use taxpayer funds that would otherwise go to state programs such as schools, health, and infrastructure. “Despite the hard times brought about by the electricity crisis, residents want planning and building for the state’s future to take place. And they appear willing to ante up,” says Baldassare.

Planning a Priority, But By Whom?

Although many Californians (58%) believe that population growth in the state is inevitable, a solid majority (66%) also say that most growth-related problems can be avoided with good planning. However, residents are conflicted about who should be doing the planning. On one hand, they are adamant that cities and local governments (74%) rather than state government (24%) control local growth and development. On the other, they are more likely to believe that local voters should make growth-related decisions by voting on local initiatives (63%), rather than local elected officials taking action after planning reviews and public hearings (35%). Perhaps as a consequence of a slowing economy, fewer Californians today (51%) than one year ago (58%) say they would support a local initiative to slow down the pace of development in their city or community, even if it meant having less economic growth.

On the whole, most Californians (60%) think their cities and communities have been growing rapidly – and most (60%) also expect rapid growth to continue in their region – but they see their local government as having done little to manage the consequences. Only 7 percent give their city government “excellent” ratings for their handling of growth issues, while 33 percent rate them as “good,” 36 percent “fair,” and 17 percent “poor.” This ambivalence may help to explain in part why a majority of residents say they would oppose paying a higher sales tax to help local government in their region pay for roads, transit, and other infrastructure projects even though more residents than not (48% to 43%) also believe that their local government does not have adequate funding for those projects.