Poll: California Voters Want A Say in Budget Decisions

A voter in San Francisco turns in her ballot and receives an 'I voted' sticker.

The Public Policy Institute of California (PPIC) has once again taken the pulse of Californian's on a range of topics. The survey released today focuses on the budget, the ballot initiative process, the relationship of the state and local governments and the approval ratings of the governor and California lawmakers.

If there is one theme that emerges from the poll, it is of members of the public who zealously protect their ability to weigh in on government policies, trust their judgments, and don't much like their elected representatives. Let's take the survey topic by topic.

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Budget

As I said, Californians really trust themselves. More than three-fourths of adults think members of the electorate should weigh in on budgetary issues including taxation and expenditures. Only one in five adults are ready to give over all budgetary decisions to our representatives--the governor and the legislature.

It is unsurprising that the people want a say in how, when and by whom their money is raised and spent. However, I would suggest that it may not always been good public policy to allow the voters to weigh in on all such decisions. An individual voter, almost by definition and certainly by nature, will make decisions based on what benefits him or her. Voters are also accountable to no one but themselves. Voters have often balked at taxing themselves, instead preferring to tax the rich on engage in detrimental behavior, like smoking. The problem is that the state needs revenue, and perhaps not just from the wealthy and those who we deem sinners. In addition, voters like their services. Who doesn't, really? The problem is that the state is in debt, and has negative money to spend.

One more issue. When the voters weigh in on budgetary issues, they do so on a piecemeal basis, issue by issue. This isn't the fault of the voters, but it means they lack the benefit of a comprehensive view of the budget, of all of the consequences and results of each of their decisions.

Special Election

As an example of the public's desire to be involved in budgetary decisions, more than two-thirds of adults support a special election to vote on Governor Brown's proposed budget fix, which would include temporary extensions of certain taxes and fees.

So does that mean the public is in favor of taxing themselves? Not so fast. While Californians want to vote on Brown's proposals, when asked about the specifics of his plan, they are not so enthusiastic. Less than half of adults favor Brown's proposal to temporarily increase the income tax and extend the state sales tax and license fees. Perhaps more significantly, less than one in ten people want to close the remainder of the budget deficit with tax increases.

In essence, it seems the public supports their ability to vote on Brown's budget, but they don't necessarily endorse that budget.

Initiatives

Further support for the idea that if members of the Golden State agree on anything, it is that they trust themselves and their abilities to make policy, a strong majority of Californians (75%) support the existence of the initiative process. The initiative process allows members of the electorate to bypass the legislature and directly enact laws. Not only do Californians like the process, but almost two-thirds of respondents think the decisions that they make at the polls on ballot initiatives are probably better than the decisions made by our elected officials.

A majority of respondents also agreed that there should be some changes to the initiative process. Specifically, a majority settled on four main reforms to our current system of direct democracy:

  • initiative sponsors and the legislature should see if they can come to a compromise before an initiative is placed on the ballot for a vote of the people;
  • there should be more information about who funds signature gathering efforts and ballot measure campaigns;
  • it is a good idea to permit initiatives only in November general elections;
  • there should be more signatures required to qualify an initiative for the ballot.

Approval Ratings of Brown, the Legislature, and the State

Again, we like ourselves, but not our representatives. Brown's approval rating is at 42 percent. One-third of respondents didn't know whether they approved of his job. Believe it or not, at 42 percent, Brown is wildly popular in comparison to California's lawmakers; only 23 percent of respondents approve of the job they are doing.

Given this lack of job approval, it is predictable that only about one-fourth of respondents trust the state government to do the right thing almost all of the time. Most respondents also believe the state government is run by special interests, more invested in themselves than their constituents.

Local Governments

It makes sense that if the people trust themselves more than the state government, they will trust the local government more than the state. The local government is and feels closer to the people. About a third of respondents said they could trust the local government to almost always do the right thing--compare that to one-fourth of respondents agreeing with that statement when it came to the state government.

Strong majorities think the local government, not the state government, should decide how money from the state government should be spent at the local level.

Where Should We Cut?

Strong majorities of Californians support spending cuts to only one of the main parts of the budget--prisons and corrections. Californians strongly oppose cuts to the other areas such as education and health and human services. In fact, Californians are willing to pay higher taxes to keep those areas of the budget at current funding levels. The enthusiasm for higher taxes is lower among likely voters.

The photo on this post is by Flickr user anitakhart. It was used under a Creative Commons License.

About the Author

Jessica Levinson is an Associate Clinical Professor at Loyola Law School. She focuses on the intersection of law and government.
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