Poll appears to show voters behind several GOP reforms

An ambitious package of reforms introduced by Republican legislators last month had part of its genesis in an unreleased poll of likely voters that they conducted a week before the special election. But the survey also revealed potential support for some reform ideas championed by Democrats.

That survey of 1,000 likely voters showed broad support for at least some of the ideas which were later introduced as part of a bold concept of remaking state government. These include concepts that would slow down the legislative process and strictly limit growth in state spending.

Nearly half of those surveyed favor allowing state budgets to be approved with a simple majority vote of the Legislature, rather than a two-thirds vote – a key change sought by many Democrats. And four in 10 said they would support a “split roll,” in which residential and commercial property are taxed at different levels.

The poll was conducted May 11 through 13 by Wilson Research Strategies, Inc., a Washington, D.C., based research firm that serves Republican candidates. According to the results, 72 percent of respondents approve of limiting growth in state spending to “inflation plus the rate of population growth.” Nearly four out of five like the idea of introducing some form of “term limits” for state agencies, boards and other public entities. Three quarters want to get rid of automatic annual spending increases for state programs.

The poll also showed 87 percent or more of likely voters approve of posting all campaign contributions online within 24 hours whenever the legislature is in session, forcing all legislation to be published with “ample time” for legislators and the media to review it, and creating new “sunshine” requirements “that would bring greater transparency to state government.”

These items showed up again on May 20, when Republican lawmakers held a press conference the day after voters shot down five budget-related initiatives by two-to-one margins. The GOP legislative leaders introduced a “Reform California” package of ideas they said would limit growth in government, end automatic spending growth formulas, and place term limits on at least some bureaucratic workers.

Another idea in the package, mandating that 70 percent of education funds be spent in the classroom, scored 84 percent approval with voters in the poll. This idea was also cited by 29 percent of respondents as having made “the biggest impression” on them of any proposal, almost twice as many as the next most popular ideas.

“They confirmed the direction we were already heading towards reform, towards reduction,” said Senator Dennis Hollingsworth, R-Murrieta, leader of the Senate Republicans.

However, Assembly Budget Committee chair Noreen Evans, D-Santa Rosa, questioned if voters would be behind many of these ideas if they really knew what they meant.

“If voters were really with Republicans on the issues, how could their numbers be shrinking so rapidly?” Evans said. “We know that voters want better schools, health care reform, and better transportation systems. Achieving these goals costs money. Polling abstract budget concepts which undercut these goals is not useful unless the questions are linked with the consequences of the concepts.”

There were also some potentially worrisome signs for Republicans.

Forty-seven percent of respondents supported the idea of changing the twothirds requirement to pass a budget to a simple majority. This would seem to indicate that the idea, much talked about as a way of solving the Legislature’s annual budget standoff, is within striking distance of passing if it made it onto the ballot.

Forty-two percent of respondents like the “split-roll” idea, which would exempt businesses from property tax increase limits imposed by Prop. 13—also indicating it may be within reach of passing with a strong campaign. Recent polls have generally shown that fewer than 30 percent of voters favored changing Prop. 13, indicating support for keeping the 1978 initiative as-is may be waning. At the end of May, San Francisco Assessor Philip Ting filed documents with the Secretary of State to form a “Close the Proposition 13 Loophole” committee.

Only 52 percent liked the idea of modifying California’s environmental regulations, even with the caveat added that they are “the toughest in the nation,” according to the poll language.

Hollingsworth declined to say how the poll was financed. But he did say that the extent of voter support for some of the ideas was a surprise. “It was a real eye opener,” Hollingsworth said.

“It convinced us how angry people were.”

According to a spokesperson for Hollingsworth, their policy staff is currently evaluating how to best move forward with the reform ideas. Most of the ideas will end up in legislation. Several could eventually find their way in front of voters via the initiative process, either through the legislation or, more likely given the partisan makeup of the Legislature, put there by a signature drive.

According to Hollingsworth’s spokesperson, Sen. Bob Dutton, R-Rancho Cucamonga, will be leading the effort on budget accountability and job creation. Sen. Jeff Denham, R-Merced, will carry several measures designed to cut the size of the cost of the state bureaucracy, while Sen. Mimi Walters, R-Tustin, will take the lead on introducing sunshine bills,

“The taxpayers foot the bill for government,” Walters said during the May 20 press conference. “They should have ample time to review all bills on the Internet before they are voted on.”

One idea that wasn’t part of the package, but has been widely talked about as a possible voter initiative, was going back to a part-time legislature. The idea enjoyed the support of two-thirds of respondents in the Wilson Research poll, which phrased the question to include the idea that it would “force legislators to spend more time in their districts listening to their constituents.”

Other ideas with strong support included instituting performance standards for programs to keep state money (81 percent), requiring “any legislator who proposes a new spending program to identify a new funding source” (81 percent), limiting public employee pensions to $100,000 (80 percent) and state employee salaries to $200,000 (78 percent).

The poll appeared to show some other good news for the GOP. While three quarters of people said the state was on the wrong track, only three percent blamed Republicans. Ten percent cited Democrats, while 15 percent identified the governor.

Fifty-eight percent of respondents liked the idea of a flat tax, which would tax all Californians at the same rate regardless of their income. Republicans have frequently talked about the idea as eliminating the roller coaster effect that comes with California’s reliance on high-income taxpayers. However, any initiative pushing this idea would likely face an allout assault by organized labor and the Democratic Party.

The poll included 44 percent Democratic respondents and 31 percent Republican, in line with state voter registration statistics reported by the Secretary of State’s office on May 4. Fifty-one percent of those surveyed backed Barack Obama in the presidential election, while 39 percent supported McCain. These percentages show a possible slight conservative bias among those polled when compared to a November 2008 vote that had 61 percent of Californians supporting Obama and 37 voting for McCain. 

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