Since the day after his election, new (and former) Gov. Jerry Brown has offered a sober assessment of California's budget mess. There are no more gimmicks to paper over a $20 billion structural deficit, Brown has said repeatedly.
The only way to correct the imbalance is by making unpopular cuts and maintaining the temporary tax increases put in place two years ago by the state legislature for another three years. Brown has said that he will rely upon the continued tax increases only if the people approve at the ballot box, but will they?
The jury is out on that question. As a point of reference, the voters have turned down 18 of the 22 most recent tax increase-related ballot questions.
Recently, the nonpartisan Public Policy Institute of California released the results from a statewide survey of 2,000 people. When asked about Brown's plan, the respondents approved the proposal by a margin of 54 percent to 41 percent, with 5 percent undecided. That's a margin of 13 percent, but such margins are known to be deceiving.
Studies on voter-dependent tax measures show that voters tend to become more negative toward such proposals as the time to vote nears. The drop off can be as high as 10 percent from "yes" to "no" in the waning days of the campaign.
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For this reason, most observers believe that unless a tax proposal has 60 percent or more going into the election, the likelihood is that the proposal will fail. With only 54 percent, it would seem that the proponents are in trouble, at least for now.
Brown does have a couple of things going for him in his efforts to persuade the voters, however. First, according to the PPIC poll, voters trust Brown a lot more than they trusted Arnold Schwarzenegger, his predecessor. That support may give Brown the leverage he needs to convince the legislature--particularly Republicans--to place the issue before the voters.
Second, we still have four full months until the election. Brown can use that time to show voters the extent he's already cutting budget and the harm that will accrue from cuts beyond those he has undertaken.
In the end, Brown's ability to sell the vote may be the most important element of all. The voters feel they have been tricked year after year. Putting their faith in Brown is a radical departure from the past decade. Brown will need that faith to transform voter wariness into voter support. Whether he can do it remains to be seen.