The latest statewide survey of California voters is getting a lot of attention for what it says about candidates for statewide office and how the state's citizens feel about the economy and the fiscal woes of its government.
It also says something else: the same Californians who want to be in charge of fixing their government don't seem to have a clue how it works.
The poll from the nonpartisan Public Policy Institute of California takes a pretty broad look at how folks feel about their government and the road ahead for 2010.
Much of what they told PPIC is no surprise, but still important: 75% say the state's budget woes are a "big problem," and 74% say things in California are headed in the "wrong direction."
And, not surprisingly to those of us who read these polls, large majorities of Californians want to protect funding for K-12 education... while a similar number are willing to cut funding for prisons.
But here's where this week's PPIC poll seems to offer some new -- and troubling-- insight: a lot of people have no idea how state government spends their tax dollars.
When given four areas of state government from which to choose, 49% of those surveyed said that "most spending in the state budget" goes to prisons. Health and human services came in second (24%), followed by K-12 education (16%) and then higher education (5%). Six percent (thankfully) admitted they don't know.
Yes, 49% think that most of the $85 billion general fund goes to prisons... when, in reality, it's less than 10 cents of every dollar spent out of the general fund this year.
That means almost half of all those surveyed have no idea that more than 41 cents of every dollar in the general fund this year is going to K-12 schools -- the single largest piece of the budget pie.
(The correct order, by the way, in the 2009-10 Budget Act: K-12 education at $35 billion, health and human services at $25 billion, higher education at $10.5 billion, and corrections at $8.2 billion.)
This bit of fiscal ignorance seems to explain so many other opinions -- not just in the PPIC survey, but from almost all recent surveys about the budget actions Californians either favor or oppose.
But sticking with this PPIC poll...
60% think the state could cut spending and still provide the same level of services, but 66% would pay higher taxes if it means protecting K-12 education.
58% want to protect K-12 education from cuts, but 37% say the budget crisis could be solved mostly through spending cuts.
One can certainly forgive most Californians for not knowing every intricacy of how their state government works; after all, they have lives to live and aren't quite the policy and political junkie that some of us are.
But here's the rub. In this same survey, 72% of voters said that "reform of the state budget process, both in terms of changing the way the state taxes and spends money" should be done at the ballot box and not at the state Capitol.
So should we assume that most folks want to be in charge but don't know enough to be in charge? And if so, where does the fault lie for having an electorate that's so uneducated about the budget process?
If nothing else, this cognitive dissonance seems especially noteworthy in a year that many think will be full of government reform proposals on the ballot. Should these reforms be approved by voters, will those same voters have any idea what they're really going to get?