Californians back tax raise, poll shows

Higher levies for wealthy among suggestions to fix state budget crisis

April 25, 2004|By Michael Finnegan | Michael Finnegan,LOS ANGELES TIMES

With the state mired in a budget crisis for the fourth year in a row, most Californians support raising taxes and expect Gov. Arnold Schwarzenegger and the Legislature to adopt that approach, a new Los Angeles Times poll has found.

The Republican governor has resisted calls by Democrats to cushion spending cuts with higher taxes, but in recent weeks has hinted at flexibility, given the depth of the state's fiscal troubles.

The poll found that the public strongly favors increasing taxes in at least several areas. Nearly four out of five Californians back higher taxes on cigarettes, and, by the same margin, alcoholic beverages. An overwhelming 69 percent support raising income taxes on the wealthy. On the question of a sales tax increase, the state is almost evenly split.

The poll also found that Democrat Sen. Barbara Boxer is strongly favored for re-election in November. If the election were held today, she would trounce her Republican challenger, former Secretary of State Bill Jones, 54 percent to 34 percent. Jones remains largely unknown to most voters.

On fiscal matters, the poll suggests that the state's political climate is more accommodating than it has been in years for officials to raise taxes. California, which is running this year on a budget of nearly $100 billion, faces a $14 billion shortfall that Schwarzenegger and the Legislature are trying to close.

During the recall campaign, Schwarzenegger said he would not raise taxes unless the state suffered a natural disaster. Since taking office, he has proposed higher tuition at state colleges and universities, but no tax hikes to balance his proposed budget for the fiscal year starting July 1. Instead, he has relied mainly on spending cuts and borrowing.

In the four years since the dot.com bust wiped out a major chunk of California's tax collections, the state's political leaders have struggled to reach consensus on how much the state must spend to sustain vital public services - and where to get that money. The prolonged fiscal distress largely drove the voter recall of Gov. Gray Davis in October.

More than six months later, the budget crisis still ranks as a top public concern, the poll found. Also, more than half of Californians say the economy is doing badly.

Overall, the public's outlook on the state of affairs in California remains bleak, with 56 percent saying things are seriously off on the wrong track and 36 percent viewing things as generally headed in the right direction.

Yet Schwarzenegger remains a highly popular governor. Even if he were to break his promise not to raise taxes, the poll found, most Californians say it would not change their opinion of him.

"He might have been a little unrealistic when he made that promise, and reality may be hitting him now that he's in the governor's chair," said Michael Johnson, 28, a pest control manager in Murrieta, and a libertarian. "I can't say that would be something that I would hold against him too much."

As to Schwarzenegger's general job performance, 64 percent of Californians approve; among registered voters, 69 percent. His biggest fans are Republicans and conservatives, but a majority of liberals, moderates, independents and Democrats also give him positive job ratings.

Schwarzenegger has one notable weak spot among traditional Democratic constituencies: Just 39 percent of blacks and 46 percent of Hispanics approve of his job performance. Yet for a Republican officeholder, even those numbers are relatively high.

The poll, taken April 17 to 21, came after a string of political successes for Schwarzenegger, most recently his deal with the Legislature on a plan to cut the cost of insurance for workplace injuries.

The survey, overseen by Times polling director Susan Pinkus, interviewed 1,571 Californians, including 1,265 registered voters. The margin of sampling error is plus or minus 3 percentage points.

The Los Angeles Times is a Tribune Publishing newspaper.

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