Yes on Majority Budget, Water Bond?

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There will be an awful lot of tongues wagging in the Capitol this morning, as a new statewide poll shows a large lead for the November ballot measure to allow the state budget to be passed by a simple legislative majority, and more support than expected for the supposedly doomed $11 billion water bond.

But don't bet on either, says the pollster who actually conducted the survey.

Photo: Getty ImagesThe Field Poll found strong support for Proposition 25, which would remove the long standing requirement of a supermajority legislative vote for the state budget -- a whopping 65% said they'd vote yes, while only 20% said they'd vote no.

Field's new survey also found support for the Proposition 18 water bond -- 42% said they'd vote yes, 32% said they'd vote no.

The results on Prop 25, in particular, are pretty shocking. Just about every poll in recent years that's asked voters to consider lowering the Legislature's budget threshold has shown either an evenly split electorate... or outright opposition to removing the 77 year old provision of California's Constitution. In fact, Field's own survey from just this past March found the 'majority vote budget' concept losing, 43%-47%.

So what's going on here? Well, the answer may lie in Prop 25 itself... and the question(s) asked of those who were polled. The March survey asked the question in its most generic form:

The California state constitution requires a two-thirds vote of the state legislature to pass a state budget. Would you approve or disapprove of replacing the two-thirds vote requirement with a simple 50 percent majority vote for the state legislature to pass a budget?

Now, compare that to today's new poll, which asks the question based on the official ballot summary prepared by the Attorney General's office:

This proposition changes the legislative vote requirement necessary to pass the state budget from two-thirds to a simple majority, but retains the two-thirds vote requirement for tax increases. It also requires that if the legislature fails to pass a budget bill by June 15 all legislators will forfeit their pay each day until a budget bill is passed. If the election were being held today, would you vote YES or NO on this proposition?

Field Poll director Mark DiCamillo said that two of the three proposals contained in that statement -- leaving intact the supermajority vote for tax increases and stripping legislators of their pay -- are probably why Prop 25 scored so well. Particularly surprising in today's poll is that 58% of Republicans surveyed said they support a 'majority vote budget' even though their party is in the minority here in Sacramento.

"I don't think Republicans are thinking through the implications of passing a majority vote budget," said DiCamillo.

The supporters of Prop 25 will no doubt hail today's poll as a resounding message from the voters, though given that Prop 25 has three key elements (legislative budget vote, no change to tax hikes threshold, punishment for late budget)... we're left to wonder just what that message really is. Meantime, the opposition camp gearing up to fight Prop 25 is making it clear it thinks one of those three -- no change to the tax increase threshold -- isn't true; on Thursday morning, they held an event with reporters to assert that they believe Prop 25's language might actually allow a tax hike to be passed on a majority vote in each house of the Legislature, if said tax hike is attached/included into the package of budget bills.

Finally on this measure... it almost goes without saying that the 'no pay for missing the budget deadline' provision is also wildly popular. "Voters like to take it out on the Legislature," said DiCamillo. But many folks around the Capitol who saw this idea first surface during the 2009 budget standoff (and the then demands of a senator who is now the lieutenant governor) believe the courts may block any effort to permanently cancel the pay of legislators.

On the water bond, Prop 18, the numbers are less impressive... but nonetheless likely to make some ask: should it really be moved off the November ballot? Last week, Governor Schwarzenegger and some of the Legislature's leadership (but not all) endorsed a delay until 2012, based on the conventional wisdom -- and presumably, the private polling of supporters -- that all of that borrowing would be summarily dismissed by the voters who keep hearing about how the sorry state of California government's finances.

But here, too, Field's veteran pollster Mark DiCamillo urges caution in reading too much into the new numbers, describing the reaction by voters to Prop 18 as "very vague." He said voters aren't really reacting to specifics of the massive (and politically controversial) water bond. It's also worth remembering that there are strong historical markers in California politics that suggest ballot measures polling below 50% -- underwater, you might say -- rarely go on to victory on Election Day.

In the meantime, there's still been no formal action taken at the Capitol to yank Prop 18 off the ballot; legislators and Schwarzenegger have until sometime in mid August to make the final decision.

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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.

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