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Brown's Tax Is Ahead, But Why Not By More?

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52% in the new poll support Gov. Brown's tax plan. (Photo: Getty/Justin Sullivan)

A brand new statewide poll shows Governor Jerry Brown's temporary tax increase initiative slightly ahead with voters. And that's no doubt a good thing if you're the governor.

But a more interesting question, it seems, is why isn't it ahead by more?

The survey just released by the Public Policy Institute of California finds 52% of likely voters support the Brown initiative after being read its official title and summary. 40% say they'd vote against the measure this November.

Not surprisingly, Democrats (71% support) and Republicans (65% oppose) have the strongest reactions to Brown's income/sales tax hike. Independent voters (49% yes, 41% no) are more conflicted.

But what's fascinating is that overall support for the governor's proposal appears to have dropped in just a matter of weeks by an astounding 20 points. PPIC's January survey found 72% support among likely voters.

So what gives?

PPIC pollster Mark Baldassare cautions against a direct comparison of the numbers, because the January poll was done before Brown's initiative had a formal title and summary for his team to read during their telephone surveys. As such, that poll question was shorter and slightly more general, whereas the new poll question hews very closely to the official ballot label (PDF) created by the office of Attorney General Kamala Harris. And so where January's poll question simply said that the tax revenues would go to K-12 schools, the new one also uses the title and summary language about public safety realignment and freeing up dollars for "other spending commitments."

But that's part of what makes comparing the two survey results so interesting. Might the measure's many moving parts be partly to blame for the blasé reaction it got in the new poll?

"The title and summary adds a whole other layer of complexity," says Baldassare.

Even more fascinating in trying to understand why Governor Brown's measure isn't doing better is what Baldassare says may be the political context in which the new poll was conducted. Unlike January, the governor's proposal is now competing for press and public attention with two other income tax raising measures: the millionaires tax authored by the California Federation of Teachers and the generally across-the-board income tax hike for K-12 schools from wealthy activist Molly Munger.

"People sense there's a disagreement," says Baldassare. And perhaps, goes the thinking, they're no longer convinced that Brown's proposal is the best way forward... even if they're not asked about alternative ideas by a pollster.

As Baldassare puts it, "Whenever there are competing ideas, they don't have to even be on the ballot."

If this competition for attention does, in fact, help explain why Governor Brown's tax initiative is now closer to a coin toss than a sure thing... then the question is what can he do about it? Increasing amounts of time, energy, and political muscle are being used to try and keep the rival measures off of the November ballot. But how does Team Brown keep people from thinking about the upsides of those measures when asked to consider the Guv's measure on its merits?

The answer to that question might -- just might -- be at the crux of the entire tax campaign this fall.

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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.
  • Ash Roughani

    A proposal that makes our tax system more volatile and passes up the opportunity to align it with a modern, service-based economy – with lower overall rates – doesn’t exactly inspire voter confidence. Voters want more from their leaders. They want ideas that foster a long-term strategic vision. And most importantly, they want a broken system fixed before they’re asked to invest more money in it.

  • Fred Mangels

    I might be willing to support his tax plan as the only way to clean up the budget. However, Brown’s continued support of High Speed Rail shows he’s willing to use new revenues (cap and trade fees, for one) for new spending. I will not support new taxes for more government spending. I’d support new taxes, one time, to close the budget deficit only. Since that’s not Brown’s plan, I won’t support him.

  • Anonymous

    The question isn’t “why not by more” but “why”
    The answer to why is that the original PPIC poll was conducted during the political roll out and the pollsters sampled reliably democratic Jerry Brown voters.  The poll was designed to persuade voters, not reflect voter sentiment.  A campaign tool, not a scientific survey.  the Field poll here is much of the same character, just not as tilted toward sampling only of supporters

  • jskdn

    The sampled populations on the Brown tax questions appear to be different between January and March, if the poll’s text is accurate. The latest poll question on the Brown tax was of “likely voters” while January’s doesn’t make that distinction. I’m not sure what criteria they used as likely voters but the only question I saw that might be used for that determination was, “Next, some people are registered to vote and others are not. Are you absolutely certain that you are registered to vote in California?”

    In both polls 1/3 of those polled said no to that. Much of the discrepancy on the Brown tax question might be explained by having non-registered survey participants included or not.  

  • jskdn

    I think you might be projecting your own preferences. The average level understanding of most public policy by those surveyed is generally quite pitiful.

  • Ash Roughani

    Fair point, but they intuitively know the system is broken.  A more radical overhaul that broadens the base with lower rates would be perceived as real reform rather than knee a simple jerk attempt to temporarily increase revenues.

  • jskdn

    Most people probably do perceive the tax system to be broken, but their reasons for those beliefs may not be all that coherent. Brown’s goal is to raise more money and I think the prospects for reform are hurt when the desire for getting more money is thrown into the mix. The oft-cited 1986 federal reform had revenue neutrality as one of its principles.

  • Speech85

    I agree that the system needs to be fixed.  The problem with making that argument (good though it may be) is that you need to have people inside the system doing the fixing.  Those people need to be paid.  And right now we don’t have the money to keep the current, broken system running; let alone fix it.  As an aside, a very similar argument needs to me made (more often) about health care reform.  I am all for health care reform.  However, there is no health care (let alone reformed health care serving an additional 40% of Californians) without more docs.  Which we don’t have.

  • Anonymous

    There are two issues here. Are there more voters that want the gov to take our money so they can spend it, and will the minorities be willing to vote yes if Brown promises to punish for them

  • Anonymous

    The problem is you cannot direct money to a certain objective. and look at the so call denial of money if a balanced budget was not enacted The gov will always find a way to keep spending that is what democrats are If you really want reform the only possible way is the take away the money and then they will have to make choices

  • Anonymous

    This is phoney if you lower taxes to tax all services with in 3 years the taxes will be restored and a huge amout of new money will flow to the gov Why don’t you admit you get a huge check and retirement and want even more

  • Anonymous

    You have only proved my point Gov cannot and willnot work We are close to the breaking point and gov is poised to take it all

  • Anonymous

    Then the first debate should be should gov get more money or not

  • Anonymous

    What we are up aginst is this CA is a welfare state and more people get our money than don’t .These people will destroy anyone or anything to get more

  • Speech85

    The debate is as follows: Do you want to lessen the services you receive somewhat and pay additional taxes or do you want to drastically reduce the services you receive and pay no additional taxes?

  • Speech85

    You do know that schools are what’s going to be cut, right if tax revenue is not passed, right?

  • Anonymous

    What I want is for the spending to be controlled. Schools take 2/3 rds of the budget they must be restructured and cut. If that means teachers work 12 months for the same pay well join the club

  • Anonymous

    Schools should be cut and restructured Florida has about 36 districts CA has over 1000. You want more money so you will continue to receive a huge check and retirement But i don’t want to pay you

  • Speech85

    There will be “punishment” no matter what.  And the punishments are not labeled “for minorities”; they’re actually hitting resource-poor (and predominantly White, Republican) areas the hardest.  So for example, while school bus services may be eliminated in Ukiah and San Francisco alike, the impact of the elimination may be felt more keenly in Ukiah.  While parks may be slated for closure up and down the State, those communities (that are resource-rich and overwhelmingly Democratic–like mine for instance) are taking over the running of the parks and/or historic buildings slated for closure while Republican, resource-poor areas are not able to do that.  The list goes on and on.  So if you don’t want to pay and you live in a poor area (which tend to be Republican) you are likely going to suffer more simply because your community can’t “pick up the slack”.

  • Anonymous

    I am not even talking about buses and parks. They can close them all. What i am saying is this Democrats run on the platform of we will punish for you. The latinos hate this country and white people they live for the day when they will take it back. they view democrats as the party that will take from one group to give to them They vote 95 percent democrtatic because they believe the democrats will  punish business and other successful people for them Did you ever notice Obama bad mouthing big business, Oil co. and always talking about taxing the rich. If brown can convince them they will pay more but he will make the group they hate to suffer even more they will vote for more taxes even on their low riders