SAN FRANCISCO, California, May 30, 2007 — California voters admit to knowing little or nothing about some of the most critical policy issues they may be facing in next year’s elections, according to a survey released today by the Public Policy Institute of California (PPIC), with funding from The James Irvine Foundation. This lack of knowledge concerning pivotal proposals, such as billions of dollars for new infrastructure bonds and changing term limits, could provide the margin of success for these proposals. Moreover, what voters don’t know may be lulling them into a false sense of fiscal security at a time when the state’s finances are still on shaky ground.
BRING ON THE BONDS!Although California has substantial debt and a large, ongoing budget gap, 64 percent of likely voters support Governor Arnold Schwarzenegger’s proposal to issue $43.3 billion more in bonds to increase funding for education facilities, prisons, water storage, and other infrastructure projects. Besides that, when told that California has approved approximately $93 billion in bonds over the past decade, 59 percent of likely voters say that amount is about right or “too little.” Only 28 percent think it is too much. And “satisfaction” with the state’s vigorous bond activity cuts across party lines, although Republicans (41%) are somewhat less likely than Democrats and Independents (48% each) to say it is the right amount.
What might explain this spending complacency from voters who consistently tell surveys that government wastes their tax dollars? It could be what they don’t know: 52 percent of voters admit that they know very little (43%) or nothing (9%) about how bonds are paid for in California. A mere 6 percent say they know a lot. “We don’t know how deep the lack of understanding runs,” says PPIC president and CEO Mark Baldassare. “Many voters may be thinking about bonds as free money, and not as debt that has to be repaid with interest.”
Despite this complacency, there are signs that policymakers should not see voter passage of bonds as a slam dunk. The $37 billion in state infrastructure bonds that passed in November 2006 had the support of 61 percent of voters in that election. While still relatively high, support for those bonds stands at 58 percent among likely voters and 55 percent among all California adults. A vast majority of likely voters (83%) also say they support greater accountability through a public information system that tracks how the bond funds are being spent. Further, when given actual choices about how to increase funding for infrastructure, likely voters are more likely to say they would prefer that the state use only surplus budget funds (29%) or raise user fees (23%) rather than issue bonds (21%).
TERM LIMITS? WHAT ARE TERM LIMITS?
Voters are equally uninformed about another critical issue they may be voting on next year — the term limits of state legislators. And they are apparently even more conflicted. When asked to name the maximum number of years a legislator can hold office in California, only 1percent of likely voters and all adults could give the correct answer — 14 years. The most common response was that legislators may hold office for a total of eight years (26% likely voters, 20% all adults). About 17 percent of likely voters and 21 percent of all adults are frank about not knowing what the maximum term is.
When informed of the term limits in the state senate and assembly, a large majority of likely voters (61%) say they believe current term limits give legislators the right amount of time in office; fewer than one-quarter (23%) think legislators are given too little time in office, and only 12 percent think they are given too much time.
Despite being so wide off the mark — yet apparently satisfied with the status quo — 53 percent of likely voters say they would vote yes when read the title and summary of “The Limits on Legislators’ Terms in Office” initiative (now under circulation for the February 2008 ballot) that would change current term limits. Forty-one percent of likely voters say they would vote no, and 6 percent are undecided. Interestingly, support for the initiative does not differ widely across the political spectrum: 57 percent of Republicans, 53 percent of Democrats, and 50 percent of independents say they would vote yes. Moreover, a majority of those who think current term limits provide the right amount of time also say they would vote yes on the initiative that changes those limits (56%).
“Voters are displaying seemingly contradictory thinking, and that may signal that they are conflicted or don’t know much about the possible pros and cons of term limits and their consequences,” says Baldassare. “At such an early stage, it’s difficult to read how much that might help or hurt the initiative’s chances of passing.”
BEST BUDGET MOOD IN YEARSConsistent with complacency about bond obligations, there has also been a dramatic drop in public anxiety over California’s budget situation. The share of residents who describe the budget as a big problem has fallen 29 points, from 73 percent to 44 percent, since May 2004. The drop is even greater among likely voters — 34 points (80% to 46%) since May 2004. This is particularly notable as the state heads into the 2008-09 budget season. This is the first time since Schwarzenegger took office that he and the legislature will be entering a budget season with fewer than 50 percent of voters saying the budget is a big problem. The brightened outlook may be benefiting Governor Schwarzenegger’s revised budget plan, released earlier this month. A solid majority of likely voters (60%) and all Californians (62%) are satisfied with the May budget revision — twice as many as are dissatisfied (30% and 28%, respectively). Residents in general are slightly less satisfied with the revision than they were with the governor’s January budget (68% satisfied, 23% dissatisfied), but slightly more are satisfied with this year’s May revision than last year’s (57% satisfied, 30% dissatisfied).
Moreover, support among likely voters for strictly limiting how much state spending can increase each year has dropped significantly from two years ago (55% today compared to 62% in May 2005). While a majority still think it’s a good idea to impose spending limits, support has declined as perceptions of the budget situation have improved.
Why such fiscal comfort in the face of a large deficit and an ongoing gap between spending and revenues? Again, it may be consistent with a pervasive lack of knowledge about budget realities. For example, just one-third (32%) of likely voters know that K-12 education absorbs the biggest chunk of state spending. Nearly as many (29%) think that more is spent on health and human services, and about one-quarter (23%) believes prisons receive the most funding. “Because voters don’t know the basic facts about state spending on major programs,” Baldassare says, “it is very difficult for them to evaluate the budget and make decisions about where to spend more or less.”
Voters also know very little about the major sources of state revenue. Personal income tax, by far the largest revenue area, is named by only 37 percent of likely voters. Many believe instead that the state sales tax (25%) and corporate tax (22%) bring in the most revenue. A lack of knowledge about the state’s fiscal facts results in just 12 percent of likely voters, and only one in 10 of all adults, correctly identifying both the state’s top spending category as K-12 education and the top revenue source as personal income tax.
Still, 46 percent of likely voters today say the budget situation remains somewhat of a problem, while only 5 percent characterize it as not a problem at all. “The pain of the state’s past budget meltdown has dulled considerably, but it would probably be a mistake to believe it has disappeared,” says Baldassare. Indeed, about half of likely voters (51%) think that the way the governor and legislature handle state spending needs major changes. Fewer than one in 10 (7%) say the spending process is fine the way it is.
PAY DOWN DEBT OR INCREASE SPENDING? NO CONTEST
Decreasing anxiety over the state’s fiscal affairs may help explain why voters are not overly excited about one element of the governor’s budget plan: prepaying the state’s bond debt instead of increasing spending in health and social services and public transportation. Only about half of likely voters (52%) think this is a good idea, despite the high level of debt the state is carrying. “If this were another time, and fiscal concerns were running higher, paying down debt would likely get a substantial rather than a bare majority of voter support,” says Baldassare.
In contrast, likely voters (69%) strongly support the governor’s proposal to increase spending on K-12 education instead of other areas of the budget. In general, spending increases are popular. Majorities of likely voters think the state should spend more than it does now on four out of five budget areas: K-12 education (65%), health and human services (56%), roads and infrastructure (56%), and higher education (51%). Only prisons and corrections fall well short of a majority (33%).
PRISON CRISIS LOOSENS VOTER LARGESSE
But while voters may not give prisons as high a spending priority as other areas, they clearly recognize the failure of the state’s current corrections system and want elected leaders to do something about it. Almost three-fourths (72%) of likely voters think prison overcrowding is a big problem, compared to just 20 percent who say it is only somewhat of a problem, and 6 percent who say it is not a problem. Evidently that concern contributes to the robust voter support (62%) for the nearly $8 billion prison package the governor and legislature recently agreed on to ease overcrowding and increase rehabilitation opportunities. “Voters historically have not placed a high priority on prison spending,” says Baldassare. “But that doesn’t mean they don’t recognize a crisis when they see one; this, along with the use of bonds, is likely what’s motivating such strong support for spending billions on prisons.”
DESPITE FISCAL COMPLACENCY, VOTERS STILL WANT TIGHT REIN ON ELECTED OFFICIALS
Is the improved fiscal mood giving elected officials a free pass? Not quite. Governor Schwarzenegger’s approval ratings, while strong, are much higher among likely voters when it comes to his overall job performance (61%) than to his handling of the state’s budget and taxes (50%). This difference in confidence is seen across political parties and in all regions of the state. Likely voters (36%) give the state legislature a far lower job approval rating than they give the governor, and a still worse one on its handling of the budget and taxes (30%).
Voters also continue to want laws that put checks and limits on the spending power and flexibility of state leaders. For example, voters are not willing to eliminate requirements that the state spend a set minimum amount annually for programs such as K-12 education. Fifty-six percent of likely voters say doing away with such requirements is a bad idea, compared to 35 percent who think it is a good idea. Similarly, majorities of voters oppose the idea of reducing the state’s two-thirds requirement to a 55 percent majority either for the legislature to pass a budget (53% say it is a bad idea) or for voters to pass local taxes (55% say it is a bad idea).
MORE KEY FINDINGS
- Put citizens in charge of redistricting… — Page 20
Nearly six in ten (59%) residents think that having the governor and legislature in charge of drawing the state’s electoral districts is a bad idea. Of the redistricting proposals that are currently circulating, majorities of Californians favor the idea of an independent citizens’ commission making these decisions (54% all adults, 56% likely voters).
- … Rather than Little Hoover — Page 20
Neither residents (40%) nor likely voters (42%) are as supportive of members of the Little Hoover Commission redrawing voting districts.
- What’s the purpose of prison? — Page 22
Residents are deeply divided over the primary purpose of prison — protecting the public from crime (35%), punishment (26%), or rehabilitation (25%)
- Immigration and gas prices top list of residents’ concerns — Page 29
According to Californians, the most important problem facing the state today is immigration (23%), followed by gas prices (11%), and jobs and the economy (11%); only 3 percent name the state budget and taxes.
ABOUT THE SURVEY
This edition of the PPIC Statewide Survey – a survey that looks at the current state budget – is the 23rd in PPIC’s Californians and Their Government series and is supported by funding from The James Irvine Foundation. This survey is intended to raise public awareness, inform decisionmakers, and stimulate public discussions about Californians’ attitudes toward fiscal issues facing the state. Findings are based on a telephone survey of 2,005 California adult residents interviewed between May 15th and May 22nd, 2007. Interviews were conducted in English or Spanish. The sampling error for the total sample is +/- 2%. The sampling error for the 1,456 registered voters is +/- 2.5%, and for the 986 likely voters it is +/- 3%. 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 a private, nonprofit organization dedicated to improving public policy through objective, nonpartisan research on the economic, social, and political issues that affect Californians. 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.