Multiple Choice Poll Question Has No Right Answer

As the California crisis gets deeper, it's getting harder and harder to keep one's good humor while reading polls.

One question, which has been asked in various forms by various polls for years, really rankles. It's about how to solve the budget crisis. Here's one version, from a recent Public Policy Institute of Caifornia poll:

"As you may know, the state government currently has an annual general fund budget of around $85 billion and faces a multibillion-dollar gap between spending and revenues. How would you prefer to deal with the state's budget gap -- mostly through spending cuts, mostly through tax increases, through a mix of spending cuts and tax increases, or do you think that it is okay for the state to borrow money and run a budget deficit?"

This is a multiple choice question with four possible answers.

And I can't answer it.

None of the answers are right.

The question is based on a false premise: that the state's budget problem is merely a math problem. Cut here or tax there, and you can balance the budget.

The problem is that this isn't really true.

The budget deficit is not a hole that can be filled like that. It's actually the byproduct of a budget system that is a big, unwieldy, out-of-control algorithm -- a collection of various formulas that come from the constitution, ballot initiatives, legislation and court decisions. The algorithm has the character of a ratchet, constantly pushing down certain revenues and pushing up certain kinds of spending.

Whether you throw more cuts or more taxes into this ratchet, you can't fix the budget. The hard evidence of this is the last decade, which has seen cuts and revenue increases -- and persistent budget deficits.

The only way out is to fix the budget system -- and really the larger governance system -- itself. But that's not one of the four choices the poll offers. Instead, the poll offers false choices on a subject where there isn't any real choice. Because the formulas are making the choices.

This wouldn't be such a bad thing if this were only one poll question on one poll. But questions like this are standard, and the results are reported over and over again by media outlets.  And in this way, the poll question adds to a profoundly misleading media narrative about the nature of the problem California faces.

It's past time to junk this question.

Lead Prop Zero blogger Joe Mathews is California editor at Zocalo Public Square, a fellow at Arizona State University’s Center for Social Cohesion, and co-author of California Crackup: How Reform Broke the Golden State and How We Can Fix It (University of California, 2010).

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