By Josh Richman

Perhaps because of all the doom-and-gloom drought predictions, Californians today are more likely than they were a year ago to vote for an $11.1 billion bond for state water projects, the Public Policy Institute of California's latest poll finds.

The poll also found Gov. Jerry Brown's approval rating has slipped from its record high in January, but he's still beating the tar out of his Republican challengers. Results of the survey, released Wednesday night, also gauged Californians' attitudes on a wide range of other issues, including high-speed rail, marijuana legalization and the federal health care law.

"Clearly the context of the drought has caught the attention of Californians and convinced them there are some things they need to do," said PPIC President and CEO Mark Baldassare. "From virtually nowhere, water has now emerged as the No. 2 issue after the economy for what Californians say are the most pressing issues facing the state."

As the Legislature debates a bevy of bond proposals for the November ballot, 60 percent of adults and 50 percent of likely voters say they would approve the most expensive proposal, which most lawmakers say is too laden with pork. Last March, 44 percent of adults and 42 percent of likely voters said they would vote yes.

Asked how they would vote if the $11.1 billion price tag is cut, support rises to 69 percent of adults and 59 percent of likely voters.

Baldassare noted that 92 percent of poll respondents said they and their families have done something to reduce household water use. Even so, he said, the surge in support for the water bond is surprising.

"It's impressive that it would have that level of support, given that almost everything we hear about it coming out of Sacramento is that it's too big or there's something wrong with it," he said.

Brown's approval rating now stands at 49 percent among all adults and 52 percent among likely voters. That's down from 58 percent of adults and 60 percent of likely voters in January, but roughly the same as his levels one year ago.

"Our poll in January was taken when there was all sorts of good news about the budget and the budget surplus," Baldassare said, noting that Brown's disapproval rating hasn't risen significantly; instead, more Californians now say they don't know how Brown is handling his job. "I don't think it reflects growing disapproval of him so much as a return to the new normal of what his approval rating has been since Prop. 30 passed."

But when asked what candidate for governor they would vote for in June's primary, 47 percent of likely voters picked the Democratic governor, while 10 percent picked conservative Republican Assemblyman Tim Donnelly and only 2 percent each picked Republicans Neel Kashkari or Andrew Blount. Another 36 percent said they're undecided.

Baldassare said one of the poll's most telling numbers is that only 37 percent of likely primary voters are following news about the candidates very or fairly closely. By comparison, that number stood at 63 percent in March 2010, when the leading candidates for governor were Brown and Republican Meg Whitman.

Because voters just aren't tuned in to this race this year, Baldassare said, this "makes the task of running for governor for everyone but the incumbent very, very difficult."

On other issues, 53 percent of adults now favor and 42 percent oppose the state's $68 billion high-speed rail project approved by voters in 2008. Among likely voters, 45 percent favor it, while 50 percent oppose it.

The poll also found 49 percent of California adults say marijuana should be legal while 47 percent say it should be illegal. Among likely voters, 53 percent support legalization, while 44 percent oppose it.

Regarding the controversial health care law, 75 percent of uninsured Californians say they'll get insurance by the Affordable Care Act's enrollment deadline this coming Monday, while 21 percent say they'll remain uninsured. Forty-seven percent of Californians see the health care law favorably, while 45 percent see it unfavorably.

"We continue to see people very divided along party lines on their support, and many people not sure what the impact will be on them," Baldassare said.

Staff writer Tracy Seipel contributed to this report. Josh Richman covers politics. Contact him at 510-208-6428. Follow him at Twitter.com/josh_richman.


By THE NUMBERS
The Golden State remains a blue state on many issues, according to the latest Public Policy Institute of California survey:
65 percent of adults say immigrants are a benefit to the state because of their hard work and job skills, while 27 percent say immigrants are a burden because they use public services.
86 percent of adults (and 83 percent of likely voters) favor a path to citizenship for illegal immigrants who wait a certain period of time, pay fines and back taxes, pass criminal background checks, and learn English. Even 72 percent of those Californians who say immigrants are a burden support a path to citizenship for illegal immigrants.
69 percent of adults say the government should not interfere with access to abortion, while 26 percent say government should pass more laws restricting its availability.
55 percent of adults say stricter environmental laws and regulations are worth the cost, while 38 percent say this type of regulation costs too many jobs and hurts the economy.
56 percent of adults say the government does not do enough to regulate access to guns, while 37 percent say the government goes too far in restricting citizens' gun rights.
50 percent of adults say the state and local tax system is at least moderately fair, but in a separate question, a record-high 60 percent say they pay at least somewhat more than they should.
63 percent of adults favor raising the top income tax rate paid by the wealthiest Californians, and 51 percent favor raising taxes for California corporations.
73 percent of adults say the gap between the rich and the poor in the nation is getting larger, while 21 percent say it remains the same and 3 percent say it's getting smaller.
52 percent of California adults and 49 percent of likely voters approve of President Barack Obama's job performance, which is close to his record lows reached in December.
The PPIC surveyed 1,702 California adults March 11-18. Margins of error: plus or minus 3.6 percentage points for all adults; plus or minus 4.5 percentage points for likely voters.
Source: Public Policy Institute of California