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Getting to Reform: The Field Poll

October 15, 2009

The event yesterday began with the presentation of the findings of a poll (PDF) conducted by Field Research Corporation on attitudes among Californians towards reform. Certain parts are encouraging but ultimately I’m not certain its results can be called positive:

  • 51% of Californians think that “fundamental changes need to made to our state constitution” and, if it were supposed”fundamental changes are going to be made to our state constitution,” 49% believe that those changes should be made through a constitutional convention or a revision commission as opposed to 40% who believed it should be done piecemeal through initiatives. So, there is majority support for some type of foundational revision. This is a positive, although it is unsurprisingly a much lower level of support than that found by Repair California’s September poll.
  • In response to question asking whether respondents would rather have their state and local taxes raised in order to provide more services or a drop in taxes accompanied by a reduction of services, 50% chose the latter as opposed to 34% choosing the former. Poll results like this make me wonder whether California is really a blue state. Considering that cuts have already been made to the bone, how does our supposedly liberal populace want more cuts instead of a raise in taxes? One question I would ask is what do respondents consider services. Would than answer the same if instead of services you said a reduction in students at state universities or the deferral of road upkeep. Services to me implies something where somebody is actually doing something directly for you, i.e. the DMV – incidentally, reducing DMV employees won’t make the DMV perform better, just saying.
  • The survey asked to questions about Prop. 13. Voters disapproved of repealing Prop. 13’s two-thirds for taxes provision 69%-27%. They also disapproved of the adoption of a split-roll property tax (different taxes for residential vs. commercial properties) 37%-52%. These numbers are particularly disheartening. As Mark Paul (who was in attendance yesterday) explained in this piece with the wonderful metaphor of the ratchet, the two-thirds provision handcuffs the Legislature, creating an institutional inclination towards cuts instead of taxes as a way of balancing the budget, and each step taken in the way of cuts is a step that can’t be undone.
  • The most disheartening result related to government inefficiency. 67% agree strongly or somewhat with the following statement: “The state government has been facing large budget deficits over the past several years. Some people believe that by simply eliminating waste and inefficiencies our state government can provide roughly the same level of services that it currently does, even it its budget has to be cut by $20-25 billion.” According to one of the speakers at the conference, $20-25 billion is about twice the total budget of the California university system. Plainly, this is ridiculous. There’s no way that’s true and yet two-thirds of the population believes it. What it shows, I think, is a fundamental lack of faith in the state government, which is justified to a degree. The silver lining is that a constitutional convention, if widely inclusive, could restore faith in the government – so this is in a certain way a positive, if a constitutional convention is called. More on my vision of an ideal constitutional convention in a later post.

There’s a bunch of other interesting numbers in the poll but those are the ones that stuck out to me. Ultimately, it appears that Californians want change abstractly but don’t have the stomach to change any concrete aspects of our governmental structure. One speaker, Kimberly Nadler of Cal State-Sacramento, likened California’s populace to someone who hires a personal trainer and then tells the trainer: “I want to get in shape but I won’t to do two things. I won’t change the way I eat and I won’t exercise.” The line garnered an eruption of laughter from the crowd, myself included, but the comparison is depressingly true.

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