SACRAMENTO -- Voters could be persuaded to consider tax hikes as part of California's budget fixes, but it will take a sustained bully pulpit effort by Gov.-elect Jerry Brown, analysts say.
A postelection poll by the University of Southern California and Los Angeles Times showed that almost half of California voters favor a mix of budget cuts and tax increases, while they want to either maintain or increase the spending for expensive programs such as K-12 education and health care for children, elderly and the poor.
In the poll of 1,689 registered voters, 45 percent said they prefer a mix of spending cuts and tax increases as a pathway to reducing the state's $25.4 billion budget. Another 6 percent say tax increases alone should take care of the problem, while 44 percent prefer budget cuts alone.
The mixed approach to fixing the budget is in line with the views of Democratic lawmakers and liberal constituent groups, who are insisting that after three years of painful cuts, a more measured solution to the persistent budget crisis is required.
"There has to be a mix," said Darry Sragow, a Democratic consultant acting as the interim director of the poll, conducted Nov. 3 to 14 by Democratic and Republican polling firms, Greenberg Quinlan Rosner and American Viewpoint. "I'm hopeful that Jerry Brown is going to spend time laying the groundwork with voters to explain what the dilemma is and what the options are to fix this. That's what I've concluded is needed here."
To be sure, voters' views are often contradictory. While 43 percent say a priority should be protecting health care and education programs -- areas that comprise nearly 85 percent of the general fund -- 32 percent say spending cuts should be a priority.
Many voters believe that elimination of waste, fraud and abuse will be enough to wipe out the budget deficit, while the only two areas they believe should be cut -- prisons and transportation -- represent less than 15 percent of the general fund budget.
When asked if tax increases are deemed necessary to close the budget deficit, 39 percent said they opposed any new tax. But 55 percent chose one form of taxes or another. Most, 17 percent, chose a new oil extraction tax, followed by sales tax (14 percent), taxes on businesses (11 percent), personal income (6 percent), property (3 percent) and all of the above (4 percent).
When provided the opportunity to raise taxes lately, however, voters have resoundingly rejected them. Two weeks ago, voters turned back a ballot measure to increase an auto tax by $18 to protect parks and rejected another to rescind corporate tax breaks.
Brown himself said the day after his election that voters are in no mood to raise taxes. But others have said he may have interpreted the polls too rigidly. For instance, if a new tax for state parks had been framed as a choice between keeping them open or closing them, voters may have responded differently.
"It all depends on what the connection is (between a tax and what it's funding) and how the campaigns are run," said Andrew Acosta, a Democratic political consultant who ran a successful Sacramento ballot measure to keep in place a tax that supported public services. "The question is: How do you put it to voters?"
Brown has said he intends to lay out the stark realities to voters to determine what voters want out of government, said Sterling Clifford, Brown's spokesman.
"If people are willing to accept the loss of services, then, OK," Clifford said. "But what Californians haven't been yet is confronted with the starkness of the choices. That's the educational mission of Jerry Brown's, to make it clear that the choices are not theoretical or ideological, they're real. This is a conversation that needs to be had with legislators and voters alike."
Brown may have enough maneuvering room to help public opinion along, Sragow said. Expectations are fairly low as he heads into office, with only 11 percent of voters expecting significant progress while another 49 percent are expecting limited progress.
See the poll at http://www.greenbergresearch.com/index.php?ID=2548.
To see results of the USC-Los Angeles Times poll, go to www.greenbergresearch.com and click on the option under "What's New."