Rework your talking points, Governor. You risk losing the message war over Proposition 30.
That’s one implication of the latest poll on Jerry Brown’s tax initiative for the November ballot. Most Californians continue to back it, but not by a comfortable majority. Pollsters are predicting a tight race to the finish.
According to the online poll by Policy Analysis for California Education (PACE) and the USC Rossier School of Education of 1,041 likely voters, 54.5 percent say they favor and 35.9 percent say they oppose Prop 30, with 9.6 percent undecided – results that are in line with other recent surveys.
But when asked to choose which resonates with them more – the basic pitch that Brown and his allies are making or the arguments of the Prop 30 opponents – by 49 to 35 percent, poll respondents agreed with the anti-taxers, with 16 percent unsure.
Brown faces a dilemma. The initiative would raise an average of $6 billion per year by raising the sales tax a quarter cent for four years and increasing the income tax for seven years on those earning more than $250,000 per year. Despite years of cuts in state and education spending due to declining state revenue, many voters believe there is waste in Sacramento. Opponents led by the Howard Jarvis Taxpayers Association are hitting hard on that theme, highlighting billions of dollars for the bullet train, a $53 million account hidden in the State Parks and Recreation budget, and raises for senior legislative staff. “State spending is out of control, and the Sacramento politicians want to send you the bill,” Jon Coupal, president of the Association, intones in a 30-second radio ad.
In a 90-second TV ad that was played to the poll respondents, Brown doesn’t talk about what he’d do with the extra revenue. He and the everyday Californians featured in the ads stress broadly protecting schools and public safety and ask voters to “take a stand” for California.
But after hearing the TV ad and the Howard Jarvis radio ad, support for Prop 30 among respondents to the PACE/USC Rossier poll declines 2.1 percentage points to 52.3 percent, dangerously close to the minimum 50 percent threshold; the opposition falls by the same amount, and the undecideds jump more than 4 percentage points, to 13.9 percent.
Brown has written Prop 30 so that K-12 schools and higher education would take the full $6 billion hit if the initiative fails, essentially holding education for ransom. Having chosen that strategy, the campaign has yet to make vividly clear the impact on students and their futures of losing the equivalent of three weeks of the school year in K-12, as well as the impact of higher tuition and decimated programs in community colleges and the CSU and UC systems.
Brown hasn’t made a strong argument for more money for K-12 schools. (Attorney Molly Munger has, but only 40 percent of respondents in the PACE/USC Rossier poll back her initiative, Prop 38, which would generate $10 billion per year by raising the income tax on all but the lowest earners.) And yet Brown could make the case that likely voters’ top preferences for using new education money, if either of the propositions passes, are essentially his. Respondents said they would:
- Restore programs and services that have been cut (47 percent);
- Prevent additional cuts to local schools (45 percent);
- Reduce class sizes (37 percent);
- Reduce the state’s debt and balance the budget (34 percent).
If Prop 30 passes, Brown plans to reduce the debt that the state owes its schools, through late payments, so that schools will then have more revenue on time in future years.
In a previous USC poll in May and again in this poll, voters, by a two-to-one margin, also indicated support for another of Brown’s education priorities: spending more money for economically disadvantaged children. Brown tried to get his weighted student funding through this year and will be back again next year. That’s another credible argument for more money for schools – one that Brown has yet to make.
What may save Prop 30 is not the message but money.
“The real key here is funding,” said poll director Dan Schnur, who also directs USC’s Jesse M. Unruh Institute of Politics. “Few campaigns win where they don’t outspend the opponents.” With the California Teachers Association, the California Federation of Teachers, and California Nurses Association each kicking in more than $1 million, the Yes on 30 campaign and related efforts have raised more than $20 million already, while opponents are struggling to reach $1 million. (See running totals of the contributions.)
However powerful their message, opponents will struggle to be heard.
Beside the November election, respondents were asked questions about technology, career and technical education and the state of schools in general.
Among the findings:
Career education: Voters have a somewhat outdated view of career technical education, such Partnership Academies that prepare students for college or the workforce; 48 percent said that CTE is for students who aren’t good at academic subjects, while 45 percent disagreed. Ninety percent said students should be taught practical skills so that they can get jobs after graduating from high school.
Technology: 57 percent endorsed the idea that students spend part of every day working independently online but only 38 percent agreed with the idea that students should be able to take classes online instead of going to school. Asked if technology will reduce the cost of education in California schools, 48 percent agreed, and 34 percent disagreed.