The screwball set of special election ballot measures cooked up by sleep-deprived politicians in Sacramento to implement their Rube Goldberg budget-balancing plan appear to be doomed.
That’s the bottom-line political prognosis to be drawn from a new Public Policy Institute of California statewide survey, which shows Propositions 1A and 1C, two linchpin initiatives needed to make last month’s budget deal work, badly lagging. Two other revenue measures, Propositions 1D and1E, lead by relatively small margins that may evaporate swiftly once opponents start hurling millions of dollars into TV campaigns to beat them. The full PPIC survey report is here:
As a political matter, the big problem for Governor Schwarzenegger and legislative Democrats, the major boosters of the Col. Mustard-With-The-Candlestick-In-The-Conservatory budget plan, is not the sheer complexity of the measures — though that alone could be enough to sink them, given the historic, reasonable man standard of Californians voting “no” on what they don’t understand.
Rather, the steepest political obstacle is that, less than eight weeks before the May 19 special, the governor and the Legislature have become political toxic assets.
Schwarzenegger’s approval rating has plunged to 33% percent — including 54% of Republicans who disapprove of his performance; only 29% of those surveyed approve of their own legislator, and the world’s least deliberative body as a whole, um, enjoys a staggering 11% approval rating.
“That’s a low I didn’t ever think could be reached,” PPIC poll-taker Mark Baldassare told us.
So: a batch of ballot measures, involving at least $6 billion of taxpayer money, that makes theoretical physics seem simple, being pitched by a sales team that voters don’t trust to mow the lawn. A recipe for electoral triumph? You be the judge.
GETTING INTO THE WEEDS
As a financial matter, defeat of one or more of the key May 19 ballot initiatives will send Arnold and the Democratic leadership back to the drawing board for a new budget bail-out, barely three months after the shameful spectacle of legislative sleepovers yielded this alleged solution, passed by the barest of margins.
One Capitol financial maven, promised anonymity in exchange for candor, gave this reply when we asked what the effect on the budget would be if the mission-critical initiatives lose: “We’re fucked.”
The Legislative Analyst has reported that lower-than-expected state revenues have already pierced an $8 billion hole in the budget deal passed in February. With $5.8 billion more at stake in passage of the initiatives, state government may be looking at a new $15 billion deficit to fix come the May Revise, a week or so after the election.
For those who want to get into the weeds on fiscal stuff, this narrative about the budget deal http://www.dof.ca.gov/budget/historical/2009-10/documents/Budget_Agreement_Full-Package-w.pdf has data showing what the passage or defeat of initiatives would mean to state finances; details on revenue and borrowing issues are on page 8.
PROP 1A: SINKING FAST
The six measures on the special election ballot are numbered Propositions 1A-1F. Looking at the PPIC poll results in reverse order:
Prop. 1F, the only initiative that’s winning big (81-13), is senator Abel Maldonado’s bid to block pay raises for state officials in years when the California is in deficit.
Prop. 1E would divert $460 million into the general fund over the next two years from a special, voter-approved fund earmarked for mental health services. Although it is now leading, its support falls short of a majority (47-37), historically not a strong indicator of future success.
Prop 1D would divert $1.4 billion into the general fund over the next four years from a special, voter-approved fund earmarked for early childhood education; although it is winning, its support also falls short of a majority (48-36) and will draw strong opposition from partisans of this worthy program .
Prop 1C would authorize $5 billion in borrowing from future lottery profits. It is getting creamed (37-50). Turn out the lights.
Prop 1B would require the state to repay public school and community colleges in the future for cuts made this year. It is in a statistical tie (44-41). But even it passes, 1B will not go into effect if Prop.1A loses.
Prop 1A is the foundation of the whole deal, and may now be at its high water mark, trailing by 39-to-46%.
The political problem with Prop 1A – which is being pitched as a conservative measure to increase the state’s “rainy day” reserve fund – is that it relies on extending for two years $16 billion in tax increases that were part of the February deal.
Or as the Legislative Analyst says: “Measure Results in Tax Increases.”
This rather salient point is not mentioned in the official ballot label, which was read to respondents in PPIC’s poll, because proper independent polling technique required their interviewers to read the ballot label verbatim to respondents, even if it is misleading, and um, incomplete. The ballot label – which conservatives tried unsuccessfully to alter in court – simply fails to tell voters that the tax increases would remain in effect.
It’s not likely that Republican candidates for governor Meg Whitman and Steve Poizner will follow suit. Look for one or both to pour a few of their multi-millions into TV ads telling voters that Schwarzenegger and the Democratic Legislature are trying to bamboozle them into voting for tax increases.
Baldassare agreed that the poll’s 39% approval rating for Prop. 1A could represent a peak. Not only does “no” beat “yes” when ballot measures are long and confusing, but, “It drives voters crazy if they get any sense that someone is trying to pull the wool over their eyes,” he said.