SACRAMENTO -- The still-stagnant economy is weighing so heavily on Californians' minds that it's crowding out other top issues such as immigration, gun control and climate change -- and is stifling support for major statewide initiatives such as high-speed rail and a Central Valley water project.

In a survey released Wednesday by the Public Policy Institute of California, nearly three-quarters of likely voters -- 71 percent -- said taming the federal deficit should be an essential priority for Congress this year.

In comparison, 52 percent consider policy changes in immigration to be essential; 42 percent think new gun control policies are essential; and 33 percent think the same for climate change policies.

"Californians' continuing concerns about the economy and the state and federal budgets make planning for the future a difficult process," said Mark Baldassare, president and CEO of the PPIC.

Support for the state's $68 billion high-speed rail project continues to lag among likely voters -- 43 percent favor it and 54 percent oppose it, similar to a year ago, when it was priced at $100 billion. But when asked if the price tag were lowered, 55 percent of likely voters said they would support a bullet train.

A broad majority of the 1,138 likely voters surveyed-- 59 percent -- said that high-speed rail was either somewhat or very important for the future quality of life and economic vitality of California. The highest level of support for the bullet train came from the Bay Area.

Votes are also tepid about a proposed $11.1 billion water bond measure, which could be headed for the 2014 ballot. Only 42 percent support it, while 51 percent oppose it. That's down from a year ago, when 51 percent favored it. Legislators are already looking at ways to pare down the cost of the water bond by half but are in the middle of discussions over a costly and controversial project to build two large tunnels to deliver water to Southern California.

New fears of another economic slowdown are limiting voters' desire to think big, Baldassare said.

"Concerns about cuts to the federal budget and its potential effects -- it's something else to lead people to wonder about the economy and how quickly it'll get better," Baldassare said. "And with the state budget situation, people are wondering how long before they can feel it's a stable situation."

Jobs and the economy continue to be the most important issues facing the state (45 percent), compared with education (11 percent) and the state budget (10 percent).

And though two-thirds of Californians say that the state budget continues to be a big problem, they are wary about raising revenues, particularly after having approved a quarter-cent sales tax hike and an income-tax increase on the wealthy in November.

Only 40 percent think it's a good idea to lower the threshold from a two-thirds vote to allow the Legislature to pass state tax measures, while 57 percent think it's a bad idea. But 60 percent say they would support lowering the threshold from two-thirds to allow the Legislature to put tax-hike proposals on the ballot for voters to decide. About half of likely voters, 49 percent, say it's a good idea to replace the two-thirds majority vote with a 55 percent majority for voters to pass local sales taxes for transportation projects.

Still, they would support a tax increase on alcohol (61 percent) over extending sales taxes to services that aren't taxed (43 percent) or taxing the extraction of oil and natural gas (44 percent).

Sixty-four percent of all 1,703 respondents said they support a path to citizenship for illegal immigrants, down from 76 percent in January. That is a far cry from the 90 percent who recently told the Field Poll they support creating a program that would allow illegal immigrants who have been living in the U.S. for a number of years an opportunity to stay in this country and apply for citizenship if they have a job, learn English and pay back taxes.

Mark DiCamillo, director of the Field Poll, noted that one question reflected voters' views in a broad-brush way, while the Field Poll had elements of a specific proposal that has floated around Congress since 2007.

"With those provisos, support goes up," DiCamillo said.

In the wake of major electoral losses around the country, including the presidential campaign, Republicans have been engaged in a national conversation about how to attract voters -- particularly Latinos and Asian-Americans. California, however, doesn't hold out much promise for Republicans.

Overwhelming majorities of Asian-Americans (71 percent), blacks (74 percent) and Latinos (70 percent) have favorable opinions of the Democratic Party. Unfavorable impressions of the Republican Party are intense among blacks (79 percent) and Asians (66 percent), while Latinos (51 percent) are less likely to think lowly of the GOP.

Independents are divided in their view of the Democratic Party -- 49 percent are favorable, 42 percent are unfavorable. But their dislike of the GOP is high: 66 percent have an unfavorable opinion of the party.

While 83 percent of Democrats have a high opinion of their own party, only 58 percent of Republicans think favorably of their own party.

The poll, which surveyed the 1,703 Californians from March 5-12, has a margin of error of plus or minus 3.8 percentage points. For the 1,138 likely voters surveyed, the margin of error is plus or minus 4.6 percentage points.

Contact Steven Harmon at 916-441-2101. Follow him at Twitter.com/ssharmon. Read the Political Blotter at IBAbuzz.com/politics.




NEW POLL's Key findings
49 percent of Californians approve of Gov. Jerry Brown's job performance, down from 51 percent in January
44 percent of Californians think the state is going in the right direction, down from 51 percent in January
34 percent of Californians approve of state Legislature, the same level as December.
43 percent of likely voters favor, and 54 percent oppose, the $68 billion high-speed rail project, the same level of support as last March
42 percent of likely voters approve of an $11.1 billion water bond, down from 51 percent last March
66 percent of Californians approve of President Barack Obama's job performance, up from 60 percent in September
71 percent say reducing the federal budget deficit is essential for Congress this year
52 percent say immigration policy changes are essential this year
41 percent say fixing climate change policies are essential this year
64 percent support a path to citizenship for illegal immigrants
56 percent say it's more important to control gun ownership than to protect the right to own guns
69 percent favor creating a federal government database to track all guns sales
55 percent favor a nationwide ban on high-capacity ammunition magazines
73 percent say government should regulate greenhouse gases
65 percent favor new federal policies to address climate change