California's crime rate is discussed over dinner tables, at community meetings, and debated in the state legislature. Next to the economy, it's considered to be the hottest issue in the state.
But California voters appear to be reluctant to put their money where their concerns are, an attitude that may prove a major stumbling block in the path of a statewide anticrime package proposed last month by Gov. Edmund G. Brown Jr.
The most recent evidence of voters' unwillingness to have their checkbooks tapped to finance increased expenditures on public safety came June 2, when Los Angeles voters soundly rejected a controversial property tax increase that would have raised $72 million to finance hiring of 1,354 new police officers.
The initiative, which lost by a margin of approximately 58 to 42 percent, was seen by many as a contest between voters' fear of crime and their deep-rooted dislike of property taxes. The latter is a sentiment still strong here three years after the passage of Proposition 13.
The L.A. measure, which would have taxed city homeowners $12.30 in the coming fiscal year and $58.85 by 1984-85, was similar to a measure turned down by Oakland voters in mid-April. The vote followed a pattern set last November when 40 to 50 local initiatives, which proposed raising taxes to augment fire, police , or paramedic services, were defeated at the polls.
Iof many items suggested by local law enforcement officials and leaders of both political parties, voters would be asked to approve for a 10-year period a one-quarter-cent sales tax increase. The increase would provide the state with state's overcrowded prison and jail facilities by 19,000 cells, and a half would be turned over to local law enforcement agencies.
There is no question that crime has become an issue of increasing concern to many voters. Nine out of 10 Californians say they think the danger of crime in their city is now greater than it was last year, according to a March poll by the Field Institute.
But according to Mervin D. Field, who heads the institute, "People are not yet ready to buy the idea of 'your money or your life.' . . . There's the big question [in voters' minds] of is this the best way to do it? [They ask] 'Can't we save the money and just get the police department to be more efficient?'"
"People still think there's a lot of waste in government," he continues. "They don't think that money is being spent properly." The public, he says, is interested in a redirec titax revenues.
Also weighing as factors in these recent elections, he suggests, are the public's perception that government has proved itself largely incapable of dealing effectively with major social issues in recent years; and a resistance to such measures on the part of lower-income voters who fear that any increase in police protection would be targeted at higher-income areas where voters wield more political clout. In addition, Proposition 13 made it particularly difficult to raise property taxes by mandating that any tax increase must be approved by a two-thirds majority vote, rather that the simple majority that had been the case prior to 1978.
Aides to Governor Brown -- who never has supported a general tax increase in his nearly two terms in office -- admit that any tax increase proposals face an uphill battle. But Brown's chief of staff, Gray Davis, notes that both the Los Angeles and Oakland elections involved "different taxes on a slightly different issue."
"To most voters, amending Prop. 13 is like amending the Magna Carta," he concedes. But because the governor has proposed increasing the sales tax, which does not raise voter hackles to the same degree that property taxes do, and because the money would be used not only for police protection but also for new prison facilities, Mr. Davis says the administration was "not disco uraged" by the recent municipal votes.