Stop Hating on No on 29 Voters, Mark!

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UPDATED, June 1 at 2:30 pm. Baldassare responded to this post via email:

While you’re entitled to your interpretation of the results, I want to make a few points about mine.
Three things are clear: Californians’ views on Prop. 29 shifted in a short period of time. Yet their support for a cigarette tax increase in general held steady, as we saw in a second survey question. Finally, these same Californians got a negative message—many of them, actually—via radio and TV about Prop. 29.  

This is hardly the first time a well-funded campaign has targeted an initiative. Whatever the outcome on this one, history shows that most initiatives fail. It’s simply easier to raise doubts in voters’ minds than convince them to vote yes.

Original post: In the release of a new poll from his organization, the brilliant, scrupulously fair president of the Public Policy Institute of California, Mark Baldassare, made an uncharacteristic mistake. It came in his comment last week on the decline of support for Prop 29, the cigarette tax to fund cancer research.

Said Baldassare: "The large drop in support for Proposition 29 speaks loudly about how a well-funded opposition is able to raise voters' doubts and distrust in state government, even when a tax increase is viewed favorably."

Baldassare was attempting to explain two findings of the poll: 63 percent of likely voters were in favor of increasing taxes on cigarette purchases -- the same as in previous polls. But only 53 percent of likely voters in the survey would vote yes on Prop 29, a double-digit decline in support from a previous poll.

The quote argues that this difference is because of tobacco companies' expensive campaign against the measure. But from my reading, the poll offers no evidence that the "No" campaign is making the difference.

And there's an alternative explanation to Baldassare's: perhaps a small percentage of the voters -- that 10 percent spread between supporters of cigarette taxes and supporters of Prop 29 -- may actually care about budget policy.

While a higher cigarette tax is good public policy (California's cigarette taxes today are relatively low, the state needs the money, and cigarette taxes reduce smoking and thus save lives and money), the budget policy of Prop 29 is a mess.

It's classic ballot-box budgeting, locking up tax money in specific funds that would be better used for broad public interests -- health and human services programs, higher education -- that have been starved of funds.

Your blogger, for example, is a Prop 29 skeptic not because of the opposition campaign and its ads -- which are full of misleading claims about "bureaucracy" and the location of research -- but because of the spending side of the initiative.

And mine isn't some radical or weird position. Some of the state's leading newspapers, including the LA Times, have made a similar good- tax-but-bad-budget-policy argument in opposing the measure. No one reads the paper anymore, sure, but maybe there are still enough informed Californians out there to explain the 10 percent spread.

It's also unfair of Baldassare to throw "distrust in state government" as an explanation for opposition.

It is the "Yes on 29" campaign that is playing upon distrust of state government, by locking up the money in ways that elected officials can't get at.

Those of us who think that's bad budget policy believe that this money should be on the table for our elected officials to use to meet the state's highest-priority needs.

That view is based on a trust in government, or at least a view that lawmakers, in negotiations and political back-and-forth, make better decisions than self-interested initiative sponsors.

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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