January 17, 2011

As we suggested Friday, one of the reasons the Howard Jarvis fetishists, union bashers and gold standard crackpots are threatening to strangle any Republican legislator who helps Gov. Jerry Brown get an extension of income, sales and vehicle taxes onto the June ballot is likely their fear that California voters just might agree to extend those taxes rather than cut further into schools, parks, prisons, public safety and health care.

And it turns out they have good reason to be afraid: a survey done by pollster Jim Moore for the California Issues Forum has found that “to avoid 20-25% deeper state budget cuts” 58% of California voters – including nearly four in 10 Republicans – would indeed support extending those taxes. And that’s after they’re spelled out as a 1-cent increase in the state sales tax, a 1% increase in state income taxes, a 1% increase in the vehicle license fee.

According to Moore’s survey of 1,000 likely voters, 74% of Democrats, 57% of independents and 37% of Republicans would support the tax extensions. (The survey asked about a four-year extension, but it’s likely that asking about a five-year extension as Brown is seeking would have made little difference.)

Interestingly, only 36% of voters – 30% of Democrats, 47% of Republicans and 21% of independents – were even aware that $8 billion in temporary tax increases were enacted in 2009. Nearly two thirds of the voters – 64% — did not know that taxes had been raised.

Even after they were told about those increases, only 14% of voters said they’d been hurt by them a great deal, while 29% said they were hurt somewhat and 44% said they were hurt very little. Another 13% had no opinion.

The underlying problem for Brown, the Democrats and others who want to solve the state’s $28 billion budget deficit with a mix of taxes and cuts, however, is this: 65% of California voters do not trust state government to spend tax money wisely. That includes 82% of Republicans, 74% of independents and even 49% of the Democrats.

On average, voters think about half the money spent by state government – 48% — is wasted. And six in 10 voters – 72% of Republicans, 65% if independents and 51% of Democrats – think the state’s budget problems result from poor planning, while only 16% blame the national economic recession.

Unless voters are convinced that Sacramento has a plan to spend money more wisely, this fundamental concern is likely to kill any chance of extending those tax increases. Brown’s straight-forward, no-bullshit, tough-love talk about the budget — particularly his proposal to shift billions in tax money and programs from the state to local government — is exactly what voters need to hear if there’s any hope of getting them to go along with extending the 2009 tax increases.

Voters – despite what some liberal pie-in-the-sky dreamers imagine – oppose “increasing taxes to help balance the state budget” 59-37%. But they support “temporarily increasing taxes to help balance the budget” by 53-44%. Which is why the battle over maintaining the 2009 tax increases will be a fight about how the issue is framed: as a tax increase (as the Jarvis hardliners will argue) and as a temporary extension (as the Silver Fox et. al. will contend).

Mostly, this will be a battle for the center of the political spectrum – the Democratic and Republican swing voters and the independents – who do not always support the Democratic or Republican candidate or argument.

Moore, the only pollster we know who creates a demographic of swing voters, has found that the Democratic base comprises 38% of the voters while the Republican base accounts for 28%. That leaves 19% as Democratic swing voters and 15% as Republican swing voters.

How does this affect political messaging and outcomes? Consider this question Moore asked: “Republicans often criticize Democrats for being too willing to raise taxes and unwilling to cut spending for ineffective government programs. In your opinion, is this a valid criticism of Democrats?

Overall, 58% of likely votes said it’s a valid criticism and 37% said it was not. But how does that break down? Among Democratic base voters 62% said it is not a valid criticism versus 33% who agreed it is. But 54% of Democratic swing voters, 74% of Republican swing voters and 90% of the Republican base accepted that criticism of Democrats.

By the same token, Moore also asked: “Democrats often criticize Republicans for giving tax breaks to big business and being intolerant of others’ political views. In your opinion, is this a valid criticism of Republicans?”

By 64-33% voters agree with that critique, including 83% of the Democratic base, 83% of the Democratic swing voters, 50% of the Republican swing voters but just 29% of the Republican base voters.

Or consider that by 57-43%, voters say they’d prefer “less government and lower taxes” over “slightly higher taxes for better government services.” That formula is a winner among 87% of the Republican base voters, 77% of the Republican swing voters and 51% of the Democratic swing voters. Only Democratic base voters would prefer higher taxes and better government services by 70-30%

But when the issue is framed as “less government and lower taxes” versus “better value for the taxes you currently pay,” voters prefer better value by 72-18% That includes 91% of the Democratic base, 78% of the Democratic swing voters and 52% of the Republican swing voters. Only Republican base voters prefer lower taxes and less government and only by 53-47%.

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