Brown May Have Found Tax Sweet Spot, Says Poll

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Getty/Justin Sullivan

A new statewide poll suggests Governor Jerry Brown may very well start out his initiative campaign to raise taxes with a bit of a tailwind, though it offers clues on how that breeze could still switch directions.

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.

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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.
  • Soquel by the Creek

    This really shouldn’t be a surprise given that 68.5% of California taxpayers only provide a meager 5.7% of the California’s income tax. Meanwhile, those earning over $250,000, the target of Governor Brown’s tax increases, ALREADY PAY OVER HALF OF ALL CALIFORNIA INCOME TAXES.

    CHART: The California Income Taxes Generated by 68.5% of California Taxpayers and by 1.9% of California Taxpayers

    The one-third minority provided 94% of all income tax revenue and generates over half of the entire General Fund.

    Here is Governor Brown’s tax increases in a simple graphical summary. For those earning over $250,000, Governor Brown’s proposal increases tax rates by 10.75% to 21.51%.

    CHART: Governor Brown’s Proposed Tax Increases

    Do you REALLY think that the problem is that our taxes on top earners are too low? REALLY?

    CHART: Governor Brown’s Proposed Income Tax Increases versus the Maximum Tax Rate of Other States

    While I support a sales tax increase AFTER implementing prudent spending and tax reforms, here’s Governor Brown’s sales tax increase versus other state’s state sales tax rates.

    I won’t be directly impacted with Governor Brown’s proposed increases. I could only hope to earn $250,000 in a single year. However, I’m smart enough to know that you don’t eat the Golden Goose!

    QUESTION: If our income tax and sale tax rates are ALREADY among the nation’s highest, do you REALLY think the problem is that are tax rates are too low? Or, is the problem too much spending, beyond the levels that the California economy can support? Or, is the problem that too few taxpayers are taxes too heavily?

    Governor Brown’s proposal ignores the necessary and obvious reforms required to return California to prosperity and simply revisits the failed policies of the past.

  • Egrit444

    what a bunch of propaganda .yeah sure thing raise the taxes that just fall into a bottomless pit. thats about a great idea as SF raising the minimum raise. oh yeah your making more money just dont figure out that its costing you more money to live because of inflation..

  • ltrs&#s

    That last comment wouldn’t have convinced me had it not been for the all-caps arguments.

    Thanks as always for the thoughtful reporting, Mr. Myers.

  • Guest

    shows how DUMB people are.  40% of the general fund, untold local property tax add-ons and all that lottery money, and we still can’t fund education in this state.  i read they now spend #14,000 PER pupil…$14,000.  how about he put his public employee pension reform on the ballot and see what “the people” think.  anyway you look at it, this is still a spending problem, more than a revenue problem.

  • Anonymous

    This is a bunch of FALSE propaganda to help Brown PUSH IS TAX AGENDA!  WE WILL VOTE NO TO NEW TAXES!  READ IT AND WEEP!

  • Anonymous

    This is a bunch of FALSE propaganda to help Brown PUSH IS TAX AGENDA!  WE WILL VOTE NO TO NEW TAXES!  READ IT AND WEEP!