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Press Release · March 20, 2013

Support for Water Bond, High-Speed Rail Falls Short of Majority—Unless Costs Are Reduced

Economy, State and Federal Budgets Worry Californians

SAN FRANCISCO, March 20, 2013—With the economy weighing on Californians’ minds, fewer than half of the state’s likely voters favor construction of a high-speed rail system or support an $11.1 billion water bond that is scheduled to go on the 2014 ballot. Both get majority support with lower price tags. 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.

Support for the water bond has dropped since last March, when 51 percent of likely voters said they planned to vote “yes.” Today, 42 percent favor it and 51 percent are opposed, when read a summary of the 2009 water package that includes the bond. When those who plan to vote “no” are asked how they would vote if the bond were a smaller amount, overall support increases to 55 percent. Most (68%) say it is important that the water bond be passed (33% very important, 35% somewhat important).

Voters passed a $10 billion bond in 2008 for the planning and construction of high-speed rail. Today, when read a description of the project and its $68 billion cost estimate, 43 percent of likely voters favor it and 54 percent are opposed. Last March, when the estimated cost was $100 billion, responses were similar (43% favor, 53% oppose). When those who are opposed are asked how they would feel if the cost were lower, overall support rises to 55 percent. Most (59%) say high-speed rail is important to the state’s quality of life and economic vitality (32% very important, 27% somewhat important).

“Majorities of likely voters would favor the water bond and high-speed rail if the price tags on these big-ticket items were reduced,” says Mark Baldassare, PPIC president and CEO. “Californians’ continuing concerns about the economy and the state and federal budgets make planning for the future a difficult process.”

Likely Voters Divided on Cost of Environmental Regulation

State leaders are discussing changes in the California Environmental Quality Act, which would likely affect projects that are part of the water bond and high-speed rail construction. When likely voters are asked for their views on environmental regulation in California, 49 percent say stricter laws and regulations cost too many jobs and hurt the economy, while 46 percent say stricter laws and regulations are worth the cost. Among all adults, there are partisan, regional, and racial/ethnic differences on this question. Most Democrats (62%) and independents (56%) say these regulations are worth the cost, but most Republicans (73%) say the regulations cost too many jobs. Residents in the Inland Empire (59%) and Central Valley (52%) say the regulations cost too many jobs, while those in Los Angeles (58%) and the San Francisco Bay Area (55%) say they are worth the cost. Orange/San Diego residents are split (47% cost too many jobs, 50% worth the cost). Asians (62%) and Latinos (55%) say the regulations are worth the cost, while blacks (68%) and whites (52%) say they cost too many jobs. Asked about government regulation of business in California, 55 percent of likely voters say it does more harm than good, and 40 percent say it is necessary to protect the public interest.

Yet most likely voters favor policies to address climate change, with 66 percent saying the government should regulate the release of greenhouse gases from sources like power plants, cars, and factories to reduce global warming (29% oppose). And 59 percent favor new federal policies to address climate change, which President Obama has advocated (36% oppose).

Governor’s Job Approval at 48 Percent, Legislature’s at 25 Percent

Californians are more optimistic about the economy than they were during and just after the Great Recession. Among likely voters, 41 percent today say they expect good times in the next year—the second consecutive PPIC survey in which more than 40 percent of likely voters have expressed this positive view (44% January). But a larger share—52 percent—expects bad times. And California residents continue to name jobs and the economy as the most important issue facing the state. Asked how they rate state leaders, likely voters give Governor Jerry Brown a 48 percent job approval rating, similar to his record-high 50 percent in January (39% disapprove today, 36% January). The legislature’s approval rating is 25 percent, similar to January (31%). As for the state budget situation, a large majority of likely voters (72%) say it is a big problem, and another 23 percent say it is somewhat of a problem.

Given their concern about the state budget, do California likely voters have an appetite for raising taxes? The survey asked about three possible ways to address the budget situation: increasing taxes on the purchase alcoholic beverages, taxing the extraction of oil and natural gas in California, and extending the state sales tax to services not currently taxed while lowering the overall sales tax rate. Only the alcoholic beverage tax has majority support among likely voters—with 61 percent in favor—while 44 percent favor an oil and gas tax and 43 percent favor the sales tax idea.

The survey asks about fiscal reforms that have been proposed to address state and local budget issues. About half of likely voters (49%) say it would be a good idea to lower the threshold—from two-thirds to 55 percent—for voters to pass local sales taxes for transportation projects. Likely voters are reluctant to make it easier for the legislature to pass state tax measures: 40 percent say it would be a good idea to lower the threshold from two-thirds to a simple majority. But they are more positive about the idea of voters having a role in the process: 60 percent favor lowering the threshold—to a simple majority—for the legislature to put taxes on the ballot.

Strong Support for the citizens’ Initiative—and for Reforming the Process

Consistent with this preference for giving the electorate the final say on state tax increases, 72 percent of likely voters say it is a good thing that a majority of voters can make laws and change public policies by passing initiatives (24% a bad thing). Solid majorities express this view across political parties, regions, and demographic groups. Since PPIC began asking this question in October 2000, large majorities of likely voters have said it is a good thing that voters can make laws by passing initiatives.

A majority of likely voters (62%) are satisfied with the way the initiative process is working, but most of them (55%) are only somewhat satisfied. Three-fourths (74%) say the process needs changes (36% major changes, 38% minor changes). Only 19 percent say it is fine the way it is. Asked about three changes that have been suggested, overwhelming majorities support each: 84 percent favor increasing public disclosure of funding sources for signature gathering and initiative campaigns, 78 percent favor having a period of time in which the initiative sponsor could meet with the legislature to see if there is a compromise solution before putting a measure on the ballot. And 77 percent favor having a system for reviewing and revising proposed initiatives to try to avoid legal issues and drafting errors. Each of these three ideas has strong support across party lines.

Most Say Federal Cuts Will Affect Them, Yet Most Want Deficit Cut

The PPIC survey was taken just after sequestration—or automatic budget cuts—went into effect, and as Congress debated how to avert a government shutdown. Against this backdrop, California likely voters give President Obama a 57 percent job approval rating, similar to January (56%). They rate Congress at just 16 percent, similar to the 21 percent rating in January. How is the president handling federal spending? Fewer (44%) approve than approve of his overall job performance (57%). Asked how the Republicans in Congress are handling federal spending, 23 percent approve. Most likely voters (70%) say the automatic cuts will affect their own economic situation (28% a major effect, 42% a minor effect).

Among the legislative priorities the president raised in his State of the Union address, PPIC asked about four: reducing the federal budget deficit, passing major immigration legislation, passing major legislation on gun policies, and setting new federal policies on climate change. The largest share of likely voters (71%) say it is essential to act on the deficit this year, while fewer say it is essential to pass major legislation this year on immigration (52%), gun policies (42%), and climate change (33%). Most likely voters say the president and Congress should act on each of these issues—whether this year or in the next few years—rather than not acting on them at all.

Asked two further questions on immigration, 59 percent of likely voters favor a path to citizenship for illegal immigrants and 78 percent support stricter border control to try to reduce illegal immigration.

On gun policies, PPIC asked whether it is more important to control gun ownership or protect the right of Americans to own guns. Likely voters are evenly divided (49% control ownership, 48% protect the right to own). Most likely voters (62%) favor a nationwide ban on high-capacity ammunition clips that hold more than 10 bullets and favor (67%) creating a federal government database to track all gun sales.

The president has also proposed raising the federal minimum wage from $7.25 to $9.00 an hour. An overwhelming majority of likely voters (70%) favor this increase. This result echoes a national survey in February by the Pew Research Center/USA Today in which 71 percent of adults were in favor.

Democratic Party Viewed More Favorably

At a time of partisan polarization, what are likely voters’ views of the two major political parties? While 53 percent have a favorable impression of the Democratic Party, just 34 percent view the Republican Party favorably. Among registered voters, Democrats are far more likely to view their own party favorably (83%) than are Republicans (58%). Independents are divided in their views of the Democratic Party (49% favorable, 42% unfavorable), while a solid majority (66%) have an unfavorable impression of the Republican Party. Among all adults, overwhelming majorities of Asians (71%), blacks (74%), and Latinos (70%) have favorable impressions of the Democratic Party, while more than half of whites (54%) have an unfavorable one. Half or more among racial/ethnic groups have unfavorable impressions of the Republican Party, with this view held more strongly among blacks (79%) and Asians (66%) than whites (54%) and Latinos (51%).

When asked which party is more concerned with the needs of people like themselves, 52 percent of likely voters say the Democratic Party and 32 percent the Republican Party. Solid majorities of blacks (86%), Latinos (73%), and Asians (64%) choose the Democratic Party. Whites are divided (37% Republican Party, 41% Democratic Party).

A majority of likely voters (59%) say the two major parties do such a poor job representing the American people that a third major party is needed, while just 32 percent say the Republican and Democratic parties do an adequate job.


The PPIC Statewide Survey was conducted with funding from The James Irvine Foundation. Findings are based on a telephone survey of 1,703 California adult residents interviewed on landlines and cell phones from March 5–12, 2013. Interviews were conducted in English or Spanish, according to respondents’ preferences.

The sampling error, taking design effects from weighting into consideration, is ±3.8 percent for all adults, ±4.0 percent for the 1,445 registered voters, and ±4.6 percent for the 1,138 likely voters. 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. 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.