Prospects for resolving California's budget mess rest squarely on Governor Jerry Brown's relationship with the state's voters.
He’s got to personally convince a public skeptical of government and loath to trust politicians to approve new taxes to help fill a cavernous budget hole. Californians have got to feel comfortable with his arguments – at a time when both support for his proposals and approval of his job performance appear to be slipping.
A Field poll released this month showed that 52 percent of registered voters support Brown’s proposal, which would temporarily increase taxes on the state’s highest earners by up to 3%, and raise the sales tax by a quarter of a percent.
But that support has eroded since an earlier poll in February, which showed that 58 percent of voters supported the measure, with 36 percent opposed.
At the same time, the recent poll showed that Brown’s own approval rating is slipping, with 43% viewing him positively, and 40% voicing disapproval.
That won’t make his selling job any easier.
The rule of thumb for initiative success in California is that a proposal needs to poll around 60% support before the campaign even gets started.
That allows for an inevitable decline brought on by voter a combination of voter skepticism and the onslaught of an opposing campaign.
And there will be an opposition campaign. This week, a coalition of conservative interests, including the Howard Jarvis Taxpayers Association, the National Federation of Independent Business and the Small Business Action Committee, announced the formation of “Californians for Reforms and Jobs, Not Taxes” to fight the Governor’s proposal.
Brown and his labor allies are likely to respond with a high-stakes campaign, although the unions will be fighting many ballot battles in November.
It also remains to be seen whether major business interests will back the Governor’s plan.
The most powerful sales tool the governor’s initiative could have has to be the Governor.
The chattering class has already begun to snark at the governor’s ability to marshal votes for a tax increase.
“Harrumph,” they chortle, “if Californians won’t pass a tobacco tax [the outcome of the Prop. 29 vote is still unclear] in the state with the second lowest percentage of smokers, the Governor will have a rough road in November.”
Remember, elections ultimately come down to turnout. Primary turnout was anemic—and more conservative and Republican than what is usually seen in a higher-turn-out, more diverse and Democrat-friendly general election electorate.
It is this November electorate that, the polls tell us, most strongly supports the Governor and his proposal. The Governor is also likely to significantly outspend tax opponents.
Fierce runoffs up and down the state – the a result of California’s new top-two primary system – could also lead to in increased turnout. Many of the hottest races - including the Sherman-Berman matchup in the San Fernando Valley – are among Democrats, potentially boosting voter participation among supporters of the plan.
Moreover, the election is still five months away and campaigns do matter.
But what may matter more to the success or failure of the Governor’s tax proposal is whether Californians tolerate the shell game Sacramento is likely to play this week to quickly deliver a feebly “balanced” budget before a mandated deadline on Friday.
And whether the Governor and a deeply unpopular legislature (19% job approval in the latest Field survey) will be granted a “hall pass” by voters, to try something—anything—to stanch the Golden State’s fiscal hemorrhaging.
Sherry Bebitch Jeffe is a Senior Fellow at the USC Price School of Public Policy and the political analyst for NBC4.