First, the headline in the Public Policy Institute of California's statewide poll: 60% of likely voters like Brown's roughly $7 billion tax plan when read a brief description (65% of all adults) and only 36% oppose it.
"It's a favorable starting point," says PPIC pollster and CEO Mark Baldassare. As most political insiders will point out, ballot measures that start below the 60% support threshold are like a wildebeest walking in front of a pride of lions. Proposals tend to become less popular as the political punches are thrown, and so Brown's plan -- new taxes on the most wealthy and on sales -- seems to be sitting in a relatively good starting position.
Of course, the organized political campaign for the measure hasn't even begun; Brown's initiative was only submitted for official vetting last week. But the governor's campaign does have a name (as reported by the Capitol Morning Report and still not, sadly, reported by the state's campaign website): "Californians to Protect Schools, Universities, and Public Safety."
That name gets to a second key finding in the poll: the taxes may be more popular if they're seen as outside the reach of Sacramento pols.
PPIC found 58% of likely voters support new tax dollars earmarked for K-12 schools -- slightly lower than the overall support for the initiative but a sign, says pollster Baldassare, that voters would approve of a proposal where state lawmakers are forced to keep their hands off. And Brown's plan ostensibly would do just that, earmarking the money for not only schools but also for public safety realignment.
"Clearly the governor has done his homework," he said.
(By the way, it's probably not quite accurate to say that there would be zero interplay between state-controlled tax dollars and the initiative funds; after all, a successful initiative would free up dollars appropriated by the normal state budget process.)
Another potential bright spot in the PPIC poll for Brown and his as-yet-unannounced coalition may be the survey's glimpse into the personal finances of voters. 64% of likely voters said their family is either the same or better off financially than a year ago (53% same, 11% better). These are more optimistic assessments than those in a PPIC poll in late 2009, just months after the last budget tax proposal was defeated in a statewide election.
Perhaps Brown will face a 2012 electorate feeling as though they have some room to spare when it comes to taxes (with many, given their income level, only facing a sales tax hike)?
But as with any poll, this one also suggests some areas in which Brown's opponents will no doubt try to attack -- especially given that the tax initiative will land smack dab in the middle of budget season.
For starters, voters don't trust state lawmakers. While Brown's job approval rating is a relatively respectable 46% among likely voters (47% among registered voters in last week's Field Poll), the Legislature's job approval among the same group stands at just 16%. And even though the initiative deals with taxes for local services, state issues will no doubt be debated in the same breath as the tax initiative. And when it comes to the state, the public stubbornly perceives that wasteful spending is rampant, says PPIC:
One important component of Californians' distrust of state government is the perception that a lot of taxpayer money is being wasted. Nearly six in 10 (57%) hold this view and another 32% say the people in state government waste some of the money they pay in taxes. The perception that a lot of taxpayer money is wasted was similar in May (54%)... Among likely voters, 63% say a lot is wasted and 30% say some is wasted.
That perception, plus the weak support for the job being done by the state's elected officials, could force Governor Brown to tread carefully in how much he takes ownership of the tax initiative. Then again, Brown's well publicized attack at symbolic state spending -- on cars and phones -- certainly got news attention earlier this year.
And on Monday afternoon, the governor was revving up the engine on his waste-cutting effort, issuing an executive order "to identify and eliminate unnecessary legislative reports."
Then again, other more substantive items may help the governor's case -- including Tuesday's announcement of a new state revenue forecast and the likely resulting automatic spending cuts.