2010: Year of CA Government Reform?

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It's hard not to see the results of tonight's new statewide poll as even more fuel to the fire of reworking the way California government -- and frankly, California politics -- will operate in the future.

The survey from the Public Policy Institute of California seems to make a compelling case for all kinds of reform efforts that could appear on a statewide ballot in 2010. And there are no shortage of efforts already underway.

[The poll should be online soon.]

So what looks popular with voters at this moment in time? Tops on the list has to be creating a new open primary. 68% of likely voters surveyed by PPIC say they support this proposal, where the top two vote-getters in the June primary would move on to November... regardless of whether they were from different parties, or the same. You'll recall this is already on the June 2010 ballot as part of the February budget deal.

The political parties, not surprisingly, hate anything that might diminish their chances to win elections. But PPIC found strong majorities of both major parties like it -- 71% of Democrats and 68% of Republicans. Governor Schwarzenegger has also voiced support for an open primary, and let's face it: the state's most prolific campaign fundraiser has no more elections of his own to win and might be casting about for a new reform effort to match his still humming along fundraising.

The poll also found strong support for changes to the initiative process. 80% of likely voters polled favor a tweak allowing the Legislature to work with initiative proponents in hopes of compromise before the voter-circulated measure heads to the ballot. Of course, such a system isn't new and a similar process (the indirect initiative) was the law in California until 1966. PPIC found a similar level of support for more disclosure of the financial backers of initiative campaigns.

The new survey found that 69% of those questioned say the state constitution needs changes (33% major changes, 36% minor changes). That will no doubt buoy the spirits of those who want to convene a constitutional convention, a movement that could pick up steam if the questions over how it will work get ironed out.

PPIC also found strong support for a modification to legislative term limits, with 63% of surveyed likely voters supporting a reduction from 14 years' service to 12 years, and allowing all 12 to be served in one house. The strength of those numbers only further strengthen the belief that the 2008 effort to make this tweak was sunk by a provision that favored extra years for incumbent legislators.

But not all government reform might be so easy to sell. In a finding no doubt to be chewed over by supporters and opponents alike, the new poll found what would seem to be anemic support for reinstating a part-time Legislature. Only 25% of those surveyed said they thought the change would be "a good thing," and 23% told pollsters they didn't think it would make any difference at all.

Expanding the notion of "reform" beyond just the top level of government operations, the new poll also finds strong support for something that anti-tax crusaders have fought tooth and nail in Sacramento: a modification to the legendary Proposition 13 that would remove tax limits for commercial properties -- a change known in policy circles as a 'split roll' proposal. 58% of likely voters in this poll said they'd support that change, while 58% also said they think Prop 13 has been "mostly a good thing" for California.

The real question for supporters of all these efforts, though, is who should lead the fight? As mentioned earlier, the governor would seem a logical choice to campaign for the open primary or the constitutional convention... except when you consider that the new PPIC poll found not only his job approval rating at 30%, but that 61% of all adults actually disapprove of how he's doing his job (often, many more who are polled will simply say they're undecided).

Furthermore, the new poll finds 73% of respondents think that government is run "by a few big interests," and the reality is that these same interests are usually the ones who write the checks for ballot measure campaigns. Californians may be hungry for some big changes to their government, but seem leery of anyone who normally tries to convince them to vote yes on election day.

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About John Myers

John Myers is Sacramento Bureau Chief for KQED Public Radio and "The California Report," heard daily on 23 public radio stations across the Golden State.

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