We Don't Need No (Budget) Education

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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.

prison-genericWhen 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?

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About John Myers

John Myers is senior editor of KQED's new multimedia California Politics & Government Desk.  He has covered California politics for most of the past two decades -- serving previously as Sacramento bureau chief for KQED News and, most recently, as political editor for KXTV News10 (ABC) in Sacramento. He moderated the only gubernatorial debate of 2014, and was named one of the nation's top statehouse reporters by The Washington Post. Follow him on Twitter @johnmyers.
  • http://www.deposums.com John


    Are you assuming that the folks whom are currently in charge know enough to be in charge? The proof is in the pudding as my Mother always used to tell me … while making damn good pudding I might add. How have the experts done with the budget lately? Put another way, could the voters do any worse? Maybe we should find out rather than run with your assumptions?


    Kevin Cummings
    Santa Cruz, CA

  • John Myers

    I don’t think the poll data is any reason to applaud elected officials. But even those I’ve interviewed who seem most resistant to reality know that CA’s budget is dominated by school spending, not prisons.

    It’s worth noting to readers that PPIC pollster Mark Baldassare told me this week that he hopes to work with the Secretary of State to perhaps publish some budget facts in the voter guide before each election. From the looks of it, that’s sorely needed.

  • http://www.deposums.com John


    Most Californians understand a family budget not a complex, difficult for ANYONE to understand State budget, which I have seen labeled as a Ponzi scheme by one politician – how does one understand a Ponzi scheme anyway? Isn’t the whole idea to deceive? What I believe more Californian’s want from their legislatures is to have state spending be more LIKE a family budget. You know, where you might actually spend LESS than you bring in and save a little, rather than run up the credit cards beyond a reasonable level and wonder how to pay it back later. My point is I think it is more important for legislatures to learn how to spend like families rather than have the families understand the complexities of a state budget. And I still wouldn’t mind an answer to my question: can we assume that those currently in charge know enough to be in charge or would that be a reckless assumption? The voter’s guide is a good idea, just make sure the legislatures read it too.

  • jmb27

    Predatory Lending is a major contributor to the economic turmoil we are currently experiencing.

    Here is an example of what I am talking about:
    Scott Veerkamp / Predatory Lending (Franklin Township School Board Member.)

    Please review this information from U.S. Senator Jeff Merkley regarding deceptive lending practices:
    “Steering payments were made to brokers who enticed unsuspecting homeowners into deceptive and expensive mortgages. These secret bonus payments, often called Yield Spread Premiums, turned home mortgages into a SCAM.”

    The Center for Responsible Lending says YSP “steals equity from struggling families.”
    1. Scott collected nearly $10,000 on two separate mortgages using YSP and junk fees. 2. This is an average of $5,000 per loan. 3. The median value of the properties was $135,000. 4. Clearly, this type of lending represents a major ripoff for consumers.