Voters May Know Nothing, But They Want to Vote


Public opinion polling can reliably tell us about voters’ views on just about anything, but public opinion itself is only as informative as it is informed.

So when 75% of California voters say they’re following the Great Budget Debate but only 16% are aware that state spending has declined by billions in the last three years, you’d be well advised to take voters’ opinions with a big honkin’ chunk of salt.

It makes sense that six in 10 voters in the latest LA Times/USC survey – including (knuckledragger alert) 51% of Republicans and conservatives – agree with Gov. Jerry Brown that there ought to be a special election to decide whether to renew increases in income and sales taxes and vehicle license fees.

That view is statewide – from a low of 55% in the Central Valley and 56% in Southern California outside of LA, to 63% on the Central Coast to 70% in the Bay Area. What we don’t know – and this is something tightwad Gov. Brown ought to pay his pollsters to find out – is how voters in swing legislative districts (where Republicans need independent and some Democratic votes) view the issue.

Jjust because people say they want to vote on the budget, however, doesn’t mean they have any actual knowledge about the budget, the budget process, where California raises and spends the most money, how big public employee pensions are or any other actual factoid. Remember, one of our three rules of politics is, “Nobody knows anything.”

Despite their relative ignorance, only one in four voters – and just four in 10 Republicans and conservatives — say the budget should be balanced with cuts alone. Most people think there ought to be a combination of cuts and taxes – as Gov. Brown has proposed.

But the Democrats ought not get too smug about all this, because the same voters who have no idea how much California spends or whether that amount has gone up or down in the past few years also believe state spending should be capped at the rate of inflation while public employee pensions should be reduced or otherwise limited as a drag on state spending.

It doesn’t really matter  — as public employee pension advocates argue – that these costs are NOT the source of California budget woes, that most of those pensions are modest (although some are certainly not) or that public employees, in the main, are no better off than workers in the private sector.

What Brown and his Democratic allies have to worry about is the perception that has already been created that leads about seven in 10 California voters to believe there ought to be a cap on the pensions of future and current public employees.

At best, that’s a perception problem the public employee unions and their allies cannot escape. At worst, it’s a hard opinion that cannot be simply ignored. Still, 45% of voters believe the salaries and benefits most public employees receive are about right or too low compared to 43% who say they’re too high. It’s a split decision on which teachers, firefighters, cops, park rangers and others can base a public education campaign.

But they’re going to have to show some shared sacrifice, too, especially the prison guard and the teachers unions. Their Democratic patrons/supplicants in the Legislature do them no favors taking a hard line against any and all attempts to rein in the real and perceived clout of these major-donor allies.

Voters don’t want to hear Jerry Brown whine about how hard he tried to exact concessions from the prison guards. Whah, whah, whah. Who cares? At this stage of his life, whining is unbecoming.

More on knucklehead voters: A detailed, lucid and insightful takeout on the implications of ignorance among broad swaths of the California electorate is a highlight of “Democracy in California,” a multi-part special report on the state’s governance-fiscal quagmire published by   the Economist.

The longer that people live in California, it seems, the more likely they are to be misinformed, and possibly brainwashed into ignorance. The supporters of Proposition 13, says (Sac State professor Kimberly) Nalder, have for three decades framed the debate as the ‘little guy versus the established powers,’ with images such as that of a grandmother being taxed out of her home. Homeowners who are happy with their low property taxes might therefore ignore the fact that large firms, trusts and hedge funds which own commercial property benefit just as much, because that would “disrupt that clean narrative.”

Written by Andreas Kluth, the magazine’s West Coast correspondent, and only slighter longer than “Remembrances of Things Past,” the package doesn’t break any new ground on the California-is-ungovernable meme, but it clearly and closely examines the multiple roots of the problem with big historic sweep and in considerable depth, all of it written in the Economist’s strong and precise style (undercut only by their consistently non-Amurican spellings of words like “practise,” “programme,” and “centre” – hey, didn’t we win that whole Revolutionary War thing?)

While doing by-now familiar journalistic drive-bys on term limits, gerrymandering and California’s boom-and-bust taxation system, Kluth spends most of his ammunition annihilating the initiative system:

Direct democracy in California is thus an aberration. It has no safeguards against Madison’s tyranny of the majority. It recognises no saucer that might cool the passions of the people. Above all, it is not a system intended to contain minority factions. Instead, it encourages special interests to wage war by ballot measure until one lobby prevails and imposes its will on all. Madison and Hamilton would have been horrified.

But in 1911 none of this was yet clear. The system had the potential to be coercive, but its actual effect would depend on context and usage. Indeed, the number of ballot measures, once the novelty wore off, declined and stayed low as the Southern Pacific’s power faded naturally. For decades, immigrants populated the state, and most problems seemed to take care of themselves. But all this changed abruptly in 1978, with an unprecedented initiative that shapes the state to this day: Proposition 13.

Among Kluth’s collection of usual suspect interviews, MVP honors go to John Mockler, state education expert and Prop. 98 author:

According to Mr. Mockler, it was Proposition 111 that finally made the overall structure for education funding incomprehensible. It multiplied by six the “data sets you need to know” to calculate education spending, he says. He compares the resulting package of legislation to the general theory of relativity, quantum physics and the federal tax code in complexity, and reckons that he is currently one of ten people alive who understand Californian school finance.

Calbuzz sez check it out.

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There are 2 comments for this post

  1. avatar Ernie Konnyu says:

    On this page on this date the usual CalBuzz liberal whine cum merrymaking on the state budget and spending has morphed into sound political advice for leaders and voters.

    Salus populi suprema lex esto or the rule of the people shall be the supreme law.

  2. avatar bogey says:

    Ernie – that sounds like you’re in favor of a vote.

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