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Press Release · May 21, 2014

Likely Voters Would Rather Pay Down Debt than Restore Funding for Services

Weeks Before Primary, Brown Leads Race with 27 Percent Undecided

SAN FRANCISCO, May 21, 2014—California likely voters would rather use the projected state budget surplus to pay down debt and build up the reserve than restore some funding for social service programs that were cut in recent years. These are among the key findings of a statewide survey released today by the Public Policy Institute of California (PPIC), with funding from The James Irvine Foundation.

With the state projected to have a surplus of several billion dollars over the next several years, 57 percent of likely voters prefer to pay down the debt and build the reserve, compared to 39 percent who favor restoring some social service funding. Californians overall are divided on this question (46% pay debt and build reserve, 48% restore funding for services). There is also a partisan divide: 59 percent of Democrats prefer restoring social service funding, while 76 percent of Republicans and 54 percent of independents prefer paying down debt and building up the reserve. Underlying Californians’ views on how to spend the surplus is continuing concern over the state budget situation: 58 percent of likely voters view it as a big problem, as do 52 percent of all adults.

Governor Brown released his revised budget proposal on May 13, during the survey interview period. The revision is largely similar to his January plan but also calls for increased funding for Medi-Cal, more drought-related spending, and increases in contributions to the California State Teachers’ Retirement System. When read a brief description, 73 percent of likely voters and 74 percent of all adults support the plan. Majorities across parties, regions, and demographic groups favor it.

Three-quarters of likely voters (74%) and all adults (76%) also approve of changes to the state’s rainy day fund reached in a bipartisan agreement earlier this month. These changes include setting aside 1.5 percent of general fund revenues every year and any capital gains revenues that exceed 8 percent of general fund revenues. For the next 15 years half of the money would be used to pay off debt. Majorities across parties (81% Democrats, 73% independents, 67% Republicans) favor this plan.

“The proposal for a rainy day fund has struck a chord with voters of all political stripes,” said Mark Baldassare, PPIC president and CEO. “Still, Californians are deeply divided along party lines when it comes to the tradeoff of paying down debt versus restoring funding for services.”

Brown’s Job Approval at 54 Percent—He Maintains Big Primary Lead

Just weeks before the primary election, the governor has a job approval rating of 54 percent among likely voters (35% disapprove, 11% don’t know). The governor’s approval rating is down from his record high of 60 percent reached in January. Last May, likely voters gave him an approval rating of 48 percent.

The governor continues to lead the primary race among primary likely voters, with 48 percent saying they would vote for him. Far fewer favor Republicans Tim Donnelly (15%) or Neel Kashkari (10%), although support for each has grown slightly since April (Donnelly 9%, Kashkari 2%). About a quarter of likely primary voters (27%) are undecided. Most Democratic primary likely voters (79%) would vote for Brown. Among Republicans, support is somewhat higher for Donnelly (30%) than Kashkari (21%), but 34 percent are still undecided—down from 58 percent in April. Among independents, 41 percent favor Brown, 35 percent are undecided, and 24 percent would vote for one of the Republican candidates.

Half of primary likely voters (53%) are satisfied with their choice of candidates, with Democrats being far more likely to be satisfied (65%) than Republicans (43%). Among independents, 48 percent are satisfied. Less than half of primary likely voters (46%) say they are following news about the candidates very or fairly closely—a much smaller share than in May 2010 (67%).

Democratic Scandals Have Little Impact on Views of Legislature

In the aftermath of political scandals that resulted in the suspension of three Democratic state senators, 36 percent of likely voters say they approve of the way the California Legislature is handling its job—about the same as in January (33%) and higher than last May (29%). Asked about the job performance of their own representatives in the assembly and state senate, 43 percent of likely voters approve, about the same as in January (45%) and up slightly from 38 percent last May.

How much do likely voters trust their state government? A majority (61%) say it can be trusted to do what is right only some of the time. Others (11%) volunteer that it can be trusted “none of the time.” Far fewer say state government can be trusted just about always (3%) or most of the time (24%). A strong majority says state government is pretty much run by a few big interests looking out for themselves (68%), while just 24 percent say it is run for the benefit of all the people. This level of distrust is high, but it is about the same as it was in December (76% can trust government some or none of the time, 71% government run by a few big interests). A slim majority of likely voters (53%) say the state government wastes a lot of taxpayer money, a slight decline since December, when 60 percent of likely voters held this view.

“Distrust in government runs high among Californians,” Baldassare said. “In this context, the recent unprecedented suspension of three Democratic state senators has had little to no effect on legislative approval ratings and party perceptions.”

The survey asked whether each of the following phrases better describes the Republican Party and its leaders or the Democratic Party and its leaders, and likely voters responded this way:

  • Governs in a more honest and ethical way? 28 percent choose the Republicans, 46 percent choose the Democrats.
  • Is more concerned with the needs of people like me? 32 percent choose the Republicans, 51 percent choose the Democrats.
  • Is more extreme in its positions? 54 percent choose the Republicans, 33 percent choose the Democrats.
  • Is more influenced by lobbyists and special interests? 42 percent choose the Republicans, 27 percent choose the Democrats, and 25 percent volunteer that this describes both parties.

Obama Job Approval Hovers Near His Record Low

Half of likely voters (50%) approve of the job President Obama is doing, similar to his record low of 46 percent in January. Approval of Congress is at 14 percent, up 5 points from the record low of 9 percent in March. In May 2010 before the last midterm elections, approval was at 26 percent. And 48 percent of likely voters approve of the way their own representative in the U.S. House is handling his or her job.

Levels of trust in the federal government are lower than in the state government. An overwhelming majority of California likely voters either say the government in Washington can be trusted to do what is right only some of the time (68%) or volunteer “none of the time” (11%). A strong majority (67%) say the government wastes a lot of taxpayer money.

Drought Hits Home—Most Say They’re Using Less Water

In the midst of a severe drought, 66 percent of Californians say they are following news about it closely. A record-high 59 percent say water supply in their area is a big problem (26% somewhat of a problem, 15% not much of a problem). This is a view held by majorities of coastal residents (59%) and inland residents (58%) alike. An overwhelming majority of residents say they are using less water (40% a lot less, 39% a little less) on indoor activities like showers, baths, and washing dishes, while 19 percent say they are not reducing indoor water use. A strong majority are using less water (38% a lot less, 28% a little less) on lawn care and landscaping, while 11 percent say they are not. Another 23 percent say they have no outdoor space or are not responsible for its upkeep. Across regions, Central Valley residents are the most likely to say they are using a lot less water indoors (45%) or out (47%).

Californians Pessimistic on Impact of Climate Change

On the heels of a government report on the impact of climate change across the nation, the survey asked Californians their views on global warming. Most (61%) say global warming will pose a serious threat to them or their way of life in their lifetime, while 35 percent say it will not. A March survey by Gallup found nearly the opposite among adults nationwide (36% yes, 64% no). California likely voters are less pessimistic than residents overall, with half (51%) saying global warming will pose a serious threat in their lifetime.

As the legislature considers a temporary moratorium on hydraulic fracturing, or fracking, about a third of Californians (30%) favor increasing its use, while 54 percent are opposed. Support for increased fracking has declined (39% May 2013, 35% July 2013, 32% September 2013, 30% today). Californians are more likely to be in favor of building the Keystone XL pipeline (46%) than opposed (38%)—although support has declined somewhat (53% May 2013, 51% July 2013, 46% today).

Majority Say Covered California Is Working Well

In the survey’s first assessment of views on health care reform since open enrollment ended, opinion on the law is relatively unchanged. Today, 48 percent of Californians have a generally favorable opinion of it and 42 percent have a generally unfavorable one. Adults with health insurance are divided (49% favorable, 41% unfavorable), while those without it are more likely to feel unfavorably (52% unfavorable, 41% favorable). When they are asked to assess California’s health insurance exchange, Covered California, a majority of adults (54%) say it is working well (14% very well, 40% fairly well), a third say it has not been working well (23% not too well, 12% not at all well), and 11 percent don’t know. Younger Californians—age 18 to 34—are much more likely (65%) than older Californians to say the state’s insurance exchange is working well (47% age 35–54, 50% age 55 and older).

More Key Findings

  • Proposition 13 remains popular among all adults, likely voters—page 9
    Most residents also believe state voters should make some fiscal decisions about at the ballot box.
  • Support for raising cigarette, alcohol taxes—but not for a tax on oil and natural gas extraction, vehicle license fees—page 10
    Improving fiscal and economic conditions have not changed Californians’ views on state taxes.
  • Most say poverty is a big problem—page 21
    The share of Californians who say poverty is a big problem is 68 percent—up 11 points since January 2006, before the recession.


The PPIC Statewide Survey was conducted with funding from The James Irvine Foundation. Findings are based on a telephone survey of 1,702 California adult residents interviewed on landlines and cell phones from May 8–15, 2014. Interviews were conducted in English or Spanish, according to respondents’ preferences.

The sampling error, taking design effects from weighting into consideration, is ±3.6 percent for all adults, ±4 percent for the 1,360 registered voters, ±4.6 percent for the 1,038 likely voters, and ±4.9 percent for the 901 primary likely voters. For question 21 (978 respondents), asked from May 8–12, it is ±4.7 percent. For question 21a (724 respondents), asked from May 13–15, it is ±5.4 percent. 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. 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.