November 29, 2010

Just six weeks before Jerry Brown rolls out the long-awaited opening of “Krusty: The Sequel,” the most fundamental problem the new governor faces is neither the $25 billion state deficit nor the utter dysfunction of the Capitol: it’s California’s dual personality disorder.

As much as politicians, government geeks and bureaucrats — not to mention “the media” – get blamed, deservedly, for the mess the state is in, there stands a mountain of evidence showing that the polarized partisan gridlock in Sacramento perfectly reflects the sentiments of the electorate.

The plain fact is that California’s litany of problems is underpinned by an everything-for-nothing ethic among voters that is both conflicted and contradictory.

We first took note of the over-arching importance of this dynamic back before the earth cooled (“Calbuzz: The Prairie Years”) when we analyzed the confounding perspective of the electorate in advance of the disastrous May 19, 2009 special election. In that debacle, Governor Schwarzmuscle and the Democrat-dominated Legislature tried to have it both ways with a series of five initiatives that, variously, raised taxes and imposed some cuts in several popular programs.

But we’d be remiss if we didn’t also call out our fellow voters, who exhibit a maddening syndrome of self-canceling impulses about how to pay for their government.

What do policymakers see when they look at such data? Voters, pointing a gun to their own heads, screaming “Stop, before I shoot!”

This self-destructive, self-canceling world view of voters has grown both more acute and more chronic since then, as illustrated by some new data in the most recent LA. Times/USC poll. Among the findings, the survey found that:

–By a huge plurality – 44-6% — voters said they would rather cut spending than raise taxes to address the deficit (another 44% opted from some murky, unspecified combination).

–But by even larger margins, voters said they would either a) not support any cuts or b) favor more spending on K-12 education and health programs – the two largest items in the budget (for schools, 37% oppose reductions and 34% want more spending while 36% are against cuts and 20% want to spend more on health). The only area of the budget where there is strong sentiment for reducing expense is on prisons, where 71% favor cutting a great deal or some of current spending.

–Most troubling of all, by 70-24%, voters said that “there is enough waste and inefficiency in government spending that we can reduce most of the state deficit by cleaning up programs without cutting programs like health care and education” – the fairy tale scenario that Meg Whitman tried to peddle, ranking up there with Santa showing up with the Great Pumpkin and the Tooth Fairy in tow. That’s how he rolls.

Our friend Joel Fox took a run at the Great Dichotomy the other day over at Fox and Hounds and offered a pretty good succinct synopsis of the problem.

So what to make of the California electorate’s pro-government, no more taxes dichotomy? Can we say that Californians have big hearts and small wallets? Or is something else going on here?

Many people believe in the California Dream. The notion of California as a place of opportunity cuts across demographics and ethnicities and is a thread that binds people in this most diverse of all states. Californians support proposals that will give people access to opportunity. I suspect that is why those polled would support avenues to citizenship and open doors at educational establishments and government programs to give people a hand up.

However, while supporting a basic framework of government support, voters clearly don’t want to pay for too much. Those responding to the survey think they already pay too much when they say the best avenue to a balanced budget is to cut spending.

Voters don’t trust government to deliver the opportunities they believe in… There is a strong sense amongst the electorate that those in government take care of themselves first.

During the campaign, Brown’s big proposal for addressing the budget mess was to lock all the legislators of both parties in a room and browbeat them with sweet reason until everyone agreed on solutions.

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