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Poll: California voters would rebuff budget reforms

California voters are unhappy with the state government but in no mood to approve reforms that would improve its performance, a new poll finds.

By Daniel B. WoodStaff writer / November 10, 2009

Lucy Nicholson/Reuters/Files

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Los Angeles

California voters would strongly reject the reforms most likely to put an end to its chronic budget woes, a new poll finds.

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Two reform groups are pushing for a suite of changes intended to solve the structural problems that puts California tens of billions of dollars in the red in every downturn. They include:

• Overhauling the state income tax to make it less volatile in times of boom and bust.
• Changing the state Constitution to allow the budget to be passed by a simple majority. It currently must be passed by a two-thirds majority.
• Revamping the 31-year-old groundbreaking initiative, Proposition 13, which limits property-tax increases. Since local governments get a large share of their money form property taxes, Prop. 13 results in many local issues – such as schools – being passed on to the state.

But a new Los Angeles Times/University of Southern California poll finds lukewarm support – or strong opposition – to all of the above.

“Voters are in a ‘no thank you’ mood right now,” says Jessica Levinson, an analyst at the Center for Governmental Studies in Los Angeles. “Voters are dissatisfied with incumbents, and more broadly established governmental institutions, yet they are also not in a reform state of mind.”

Sixty-five percent oppose plans to place levies similar to a sales tax on services such as legal advice and car repairs, the poll shows. Forty-eight percent of voters oppose broadening the tax burden to making the state less dependent on the wealthy. And 70 percent oppose easing Proposition 13's restrictions on property taxes.

“California voters want results, not procedural changes,” says Jack Pitney, a political scientist at Claremont McKenna College. “For years, politicians have been talking about procedural reforms, and sometimes they’ve happened, but nothing seems to get better.”

He notes that California voters enacted term limits in 1990 to bring regular citizens into government. Instead, he says, the state now has a set of professional politicians constantly swapping offices. And various campaign-finance reforms have done little to reduce the influence of money, he says.

“I would ask a proponent of constitutional reform a simple question: Can you point to a procedural reform of the past half-century that actually had the advertised effect?” he asks.

Members of the two reform groups – Bay Area Council and California Forward – have a more nuanced response to the poll.

It is “what we call ‘the paradox of reform,’ which is that the big challenge is not just the reform itself, but who is implementing it,” says John Grubb, a spokesman for Bay Area Council. “We found in our polling that the voters only trust themselves. Anything they see as a potential grab of power, they disapprove of.”

Bay Area Council’s answer is a constitutional convention. That body would consist of experts who are appointed by local government leaders as well as everyday Californians.

“The fact that some of these answers come from people just like them, would enhance the likelihood that they would get supported,” says Mr. Grubb.

The way the questions are asked is also important, says Jim Mayer, executive director of California Forward. [Editor's note: The original version misstated Mr. Mayer's first name.]

“If you ask the public if they want to change the two-thirds majority to pass a budget, they say ‘no’…, but if you link it with other things they say they want – like an on-time budget – they might realize that the easiest way to have an on-time budget is to not have it help up with non-fiscal issues.”

Political observers say much will depend on what happens to the California economy between now and next year in defining how much the public is willing to undergo another round of reform.

“If California voters want to improve the system because they so frustrated with the status quo, they will vote yes on many of these measures,” says Robert Stern, president of CGS. “If California voters are in the same foul mood they indicated in the poll and just want to vote no, many of these measures could be defeated.”

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