By Daniel Weintraub
Californians are suddenly feeling good about themselves. And their state.
The economy is showing signs of life, employment is rising, and the state budget – and the schools – are in better shape financially thanks to voter-approval of Gov. Jerry Brown’s proposal to raise taxes.
All of that is fueling a level of optimism about the state and its future that hasn’t been seen in these parts for years.
A new poll by the Public Policy Institute of California finds that 44 percent of Californians say the state is moving in the right direction. That might not sound like much. But it’s the highest level of satisfaction since 2007 and up 30 points since the low point in July 2009, when just 14 percent of Californians were pleased with the direction of their state.
Satisfaction is highest among Latinos (54 percent) and Asians (51 percent) and among young adults. Older people and whites are less likely to be pleased with where California is headed. Sixty percent of whites surveyed said they still think the state is moving in the wrong direction.
Similar numbers emerged when the survey asked Californians about their outlook for the long-term future.
Forty-two percent said they believed California would be a better place to live in 2025 than it is today, a 17-point increase since 2004. Since that time, the PPIC reports, there have been double-digit increases in positive views of the future across regions, demographic lines and parties, with one exception. A majority of Republicans – 54 percent – are now pessimistic about California’s future prospects.
All of that good feeling is leading more people to cut some slack for the state’s political leaders. Brown’s approval rating has reached a record high, with 48 percent now saying he is doing a good job and 35 percent unhappy with his performance. Even the Legislature is getting some love, with 34 percent saying that lawmakers – collectively – are doing a good job. That’s the highest level of satisfaction with the Capitol since 2008.
But an undercurrent of unease still runs deep. Californians remain concerned about the budget and two specific issues the poll asked about – higher education and California’s water supply.
On the budget, while 46 percent are more optimistic today than they were before the election, 94 percent say the state’s fiscal condition is still a problem, and 68 percent say it is a big problem.
More than half –55 percent – say they think that, generally, we need a bigger government financed by higher taxes, while 40 percent say they favor lower taxes and fewer services.
But what kind of taxes would that majority support? The state just increased taxes on the wealthiest Californians and pushed the sales tax up by one-quarter cent on the dollar. Proposals to expand the sales tax to services and increase the car tax were opposed in this poll by large majorities. Increasing property taxes on business was the only tax proposal polled that won favor with a majority of adults.
And in a contradiction that has come to typify California politics and its electorate, strong majorities backed spending limits for state government.
Seventy-nine percent said any significant spending proposal or tax cut should have to be linked to a corresponding cut in spending or increase in taxes elsewhere in the budget. Seventy-two percent said surplus revenues should be put in a rainy-day fund and saved so they would be available in future economic downturns. And 65 percent say the state should have a strict limit on how much spending could increase from year to year.
These are the same people, largely, who said they supported a bigger government providing more services financed by higher taxes. And that’s probably where their hearts are. Past attempts to limit spending by constitutional amendment have failed when interest groups point out that a strict limit might mean slower growth – or cuts – in spending for schools, health care and other popular programs.
Indeed, in this poll, Californians said they are already worried about the future of higher education. More and more people want their children to graduate from college – and a record 51 percent now say they want their kids to go to graduate school. Only 4 percent say they hope their youngest child will simply graduate from high school and 6 percent say they would be satisfied with their child completing community college or a technical school.
But 65 percent say college affordability is a big problem, and 43 percent say finances are a big enough hurdle to have a negative effect on the ability of Californians to get a college education. Fifty-six percent say they fear that 20 years from now, the state will face a shortage of college-educated people to fill jobs that require an advanced education.
On water, nearly 60 percent say the water supply is a problem in their area. And Californians are evenly divided about how best to keep water flowing to the parts of the state that need it. Forty-seven percent said the state should focus on building new storage – dams and reservoirs – while 50 percent said the focus should be on conservation. That’s a smaller edge for conservation than in past polls.
No one has ever said that voters have to be consistent. But even with their increasing level of comfort with the direction of the state and their optimism about the future, Californians remain conflicted about what kind of government they desire.
They want more services, better access to college, a secure water supply, but they don’t want to pay for these things themselves. They favor higher taxes and more government programs but they want to limit spending and build a bigger reserve.
All of this can’t happen. Something has to give. The only way to come close to satisfying these competing views is for economic growth to lift the prospects of individuals and families and fill the treasury with enough money to pay for programs and build a reserve.
That’s not going to happen overnight, despite signs of an economic revival in the state. In the meantime, a lot of Californians are going to remain disappointed, fearful and apprehensive about the future.
Daniel Weintraub has covered California public policy for 25 years. He is editor of the California Health Report at www.calhealthreport.org .