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Californians Want Spending Cuts — But Not Really

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Aired 11/22/10

A new LA Times-USC poll says Californians believe cutting spending is the best way to reach a balanced budget, but do not want any programs to be cut, while another says California Republicans are increasingly an endangered species.

A new LA Times-USC poll says Californians believe cutting spending is the best way to reach a balanced budget, but do not want any programs to be cut. Another poll says California Republicans are increasingly an endangered species, with a broad sample of the state's voters holding opinions that are antithetic to those held by the Republican Party.

Guest: Cathleen Decker, senior political editor, Los Angeles Times

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This is a rush transcript created by a contractor for KPBS to improve accessibility for the deaf and hard-of-hearing. Please refer to the media file as the formal record of this interview. Opinions expressed by guests during interviews reflect the guest’s individual views and do not necessarily represent those of KPBS staff, members or its sponsors.

MAUREEN CAVANAUGH: I'm Maureen Cavanaugh, you're listening to These Days on KPBS. When most voters say they want California to solve its budget deficit by making spending cuts, and they say they want no cuts made to the state's most exceptive programs, you've got what's called a problem. A couple of new LA Times USC public opinion polls are making headlines, first because of the mixed messages voters are saying about state spending and budget cutting, and because of its dismal news for California Republicans and their shrinking base of support. Joining me to talk about both new polls, is my guest, LA Times reporter Cathleen Decker and good morning, Cathleen.

CATHLEEN DECKER: Good morning.

MAUREEN CAVANAUGH: The first LA Times USC poll that was published last week, asked voters what their priorities were for the state billion. First of all, to give us some context on this, tell us how big a deficit we're looking at this year in California?

CATHLEEN DECKER: Over the next 18 months we're looking at upwards of $25 billion in deficit. And to put that into some context, the state general fund is roughly 86-billion. So it's a huge chunk of what the state normally would have to use in a year.

MAUREEN CAVANAUGH: Exactly. So voters were asked how they might achieve a balanced budget. And what did they say?

CATHLEEN DECKER: Essentially they believe that 85 percent of the state's programs should be protected. That would be K-12 education, healthcare programs for the poor or children, and colleges. They're very strongly supportive of those programs. They also are very strongly supportive of the notion that the state budget deficit should be squared by spending cuts. The sort of conundrum there rests on the notion that most voters had that California government is sort of rife with fraud and inefficiencies, and through those mechanisms, through tightening up these things, we can achieve a massive amount of savings without such of an impact on programs. Only a quarter of Californians said that they thought that programs would be affected by spending cuts, as opposed to the 75 percent who felt that waste would be nearly cut out.

MAUREEN CAVANAUGH: I see. So basically the message that California voters still have is that the state government is just filled with areas of fat that can be cut. And we can close most of that deficit that we're looking at.

CATHLEEN DECKER: Exactly.

MAUREEN CAVANAUGH: But the programs, has anyone done actually at the LA Times or anywhere else done the math in trying to calculate how much of these protected programs, the programs that the voters don't want anything cut from actually make up of of the state government and so how little there would be left to cut.

CATHLEEN DECKER: The voters voted in our poll that they wanted to have protected our 85 percent of the budget. So you have the situation here where they expect cuts in 15 percent of the budget to accommodate the huge budget deficit. So on its surface, that looks ludicrous. However, the argument that the voters are making is not that, you know, that you could get all that savings out of the 15 percent of the budget that they don't particularly care about. They're arguing that within the entirety of the budget, there's inefficiency, fraud, abuse, and that those things can be cut out from the entirety of the bottom to accommodate the budget deficit.

MAUREEN CAVANAUGH: But then again, the voters were against sort of making cuts to school funding; is that right?

CATHLEEN DECKER: Right.

MAUREEN CAVANAUGH: And college funding?

CATHLEEN DECKER: Exactly.

MAUREEN CAVANAUGH: And what about social programs for children and the poor.

CATHLEEN DECKER: As I indicated, the healthcare plan, the healthcare programs for the poor and children, they were supportive of as well. So essentially everything in education from kindergarten through college and healthcare programs for the poor. The only program that voters agreed to cut in and wanted cuts in, in fact, by a huge proportion, was in the prison system. And the problem that mathematically is that just on the surface, that prison spending is only ten percent of the state general fund. So you're not getting a lot of bang for your buck when you're cutting there as you would from these other programs which totally are 85 percent of the budget.

MAUREEN CAVANAUGH: Now, does -- there is an inherent conflict as you pointed out in the results of this poll. Of is there anything that perhaps the new governor or his proposals on balancing the budget might be able to learn from this poll?

CATHLEEN DECKER: Well, essentially what you could learn from this poll if you're in the legislature or in the governor's office, is that people don't want to see cuts in their favorite programs and they do firmly believe that there's inefficiency there. So you know, in terms of guidance, that's the only guidance you can get from this, that people want inefficiencies rooted out, they 79 to think that the money -- they're not averse to spending money for programs that they value, like education and healthcare for the poor and for children. They are averse to their sense that they are spending their own money, giving it to the state and that that money is being wasted. So whether that's realistic or not in the proportions that voters believe it is, that's where they're coming from.

MAUREEN CAVANAUGH: I'm speaking with Cathleen Decker, she is a LA Times reporter. And we're talking about the first of two LA Times USC public opinion polls, the results of which were published last week. Voters were asked which state financed institutions they thought deserved the most protection. Tell us what they are.

CATHLEEN DECKER: K-12 education, essentially elementary and high schools are the most favorite programs in the state. About 71 percent of voters either said that they did not want any cuts in elementary and high school funding or what they wanted elementary and high school funding increased. And there was a substantial proportion of people who wanted funding increased in those areas. About a third of voters. The second ranking program, second and third, actually, it was a tie, are healthcare for the poor and the colleges. Only a third of voters wanted cuts in those programs. And almost three in five voters wanted those programs to either stay as they are today, or have their funding increased. And then you get to prisons, and essentially we asked a number of categories on transportation, and people were mixed, you know, roughly the same proportion of people wanted cuts as wanted either no cuts or tax increases. But prisons was the stand out program. This is consistent with past polls that have been done. Essentially prison programs are not terribly popular. They -- in this poll, only 15 percent of voters said there should be no cuts in prison funding, and only five percent of voters said there should be increases. So we're looking at three times at least proportion of people who want protection for K-12 education as want protection for the prisons.

MAUREEN CAVANAUGH: And did you find a big difference between how Republicans and Democrats responded to this poll.

CATHLEEN DECKER: Yes, Democrats, to sort of generalize, Democrats were generally more supportive of education and healthcare programs. And Democrats were also more interested in increasing taxes, as you might guess. And Republicans were much more opposed to taxes. Essentially 59 percent of Republicans said there should be no tax hikes whatsoever, and 25 percent of Democrats felt the same way. However, all told, the state did again largely want the budget mess in Sacramento dealt with through spending cuts.

MAUREEN CAVANAUGH: And not through increasing revenue.

CATHLEEN DECKER: Absolutely.

MAUREEN CAVANAUGH: Now, when people said that they really didn't want their funding to go to prisons, was there any feeling on how we could save any money on those prisons? Maybe shorter sentences or anything like that?

CATHLEEN DECKER: No, we, you know, poling is limited. You can only ask a certain number of questions before people decide they don't want to spend half their life with you on the telephone. So by its nature, it tends to be a broad sweep. And that's another of the sort of complications of this. Obviously, voters have time and again in California in the last two decades sided with increased sentences, they have been very reluctant to pull back at all, you know, we have had the thee strikes rules, we have had increased rules for sex offenders. We have had a whole number of measures that have gone into effect that in accumulation have required longer sentences and more time in prison. We also have, you know, coming from the other side, a lot of the prison spending and the treatment of prisoners have been man dated under court action because there have been court rulings in terms of healthcare and general treatment of prisoners. So a lot of the, you know, while 70 percent of Californians want cuts in the prison system. Number one, it's only ten percent of the budget. So you can't get much in terms of dollar out of that, and number two, it's questionable whether you could even get that level of cuts because so much of this is man dated either by voters' own actions or by the Courts.

MAUREEN CAVANAUGH: We've just been through a really hard fought gubernatorial campaign. Based on the results of this poll, where do you see the voters coming down? More of a Whitman or Brown strategy?

CATHLEEN DECKER: Well, clearly as the results indicated pretty dramatically on election night, this is a democratic state.

MAUREEN CAVANAUGH: Sure.

CATHLEEN DECKER: Jerry Brown commanded both Democrats and declined to state voters in large numbers along the voter groups of people in the political world watch because of their importance in term it is of determining the election which is declined to state voters or nonpart sap voters and Latino voters, he swamped Whitman. So there was a clear telling of sort of where the state's head is at right now. Now, having said that, you know, in the not too distant past,s in 2006, the state did elect a Republican govern. So it's not beyond, you know, the possibility that California elects Republicans of Californians appear to be looking for a specific kind of Republican, however. One that is generally along the lines of the way that Schwartzenegger ran in both 2003 and 2006, and the way peat Wilson ran in 1990, which is a fiscal conservative who is generally moderate to liberal on social issues.

MAUREEN CAVANAUGH: Right. Well, I want it move onto the other poll that the LA Times did about the Republican party. One last question about the poll on how we should fix our deficit. I'm reminded of the TV ad from Jerry Brown that was really ubiquitous during the campaign, and he said and no increased taxes without voter approval. On the basis of this poll, how likely do you think that voter approval might be for any increased taxes?

CATHLEEN DECKER: Well, that's sort of the box that he's in right now, clearly that was an important part of his campaign. And it demonstrated the sort of tea partiesque sensibility for the feelings of voters on tax increases. But clearly, the results of this poll indicate that that is a very tough sell for Californians. Of now, it's certainly possible that one could construct a mechanism through which, you know, taxes were increased in exchange for something else. That's not outside the pale based on what we found here. But that's going to be a very hard sell for California voters. In this time of economic ruin for a lot of people, people are just not willing to commit to that kind of development. And we saw in the November election that people were not willing to commit to an $18 annual increase in their car fees. So if you're not going to commit to $18 to support state parks which are a popular enterprise, then you're likely not to buy into a whole lot of other taxes unless there's a compelling argument that can be made to voters right now.

MAUREEN CAVANAUGH: I'm speaking with LA Times reporter Cathleen Decker. We're talking about two recent LA Times USC polls. And moving onto the second of those polls about Californian voters' feelings about the Republican party. That poll was released on Friday. It confirmed some pundits had already thought, and that is that the Republican party is in a great deal of trouble in California. Cathleen, generally what do the polls show.

CATHLEEN DECKER: It showed that voters, and particularly the voters that decide elections in California, have very negative views of the Republican party. Most people in this poll, when they were asked what the Republican party needs to do in the future, said they needed to have a less conservative face on their next batch of candidates. 18 percent of voters, one in five voters said they would never vote for a Republican. And that's -- that went up to felon percent among Latinos who are a strongly sought after group right now, because they represent 20 percent of the voting population. And that number is going up every election. There was just an across the board disdain for both Republican candidates who ran in November, and also for the basic tenants of the party. People disagreed with the party on same sex marriage, they disagreed with the party's position on immigration, and they disagreed with the party's notions of small, limited government. They bought into the notion of government that regulates businesses, that protects minorities, and that helps increase the -- or helps benefit the poor. And you will of those things are not -- you know, not all Republicans take a position or not, but in a broad general sweep, essentially, they're sort of turning their back on the motivating factors for the Republican party in California.

MAUREEN CAVANAUGH: Now, that's somewhat surprising because there are pockets in California that are heavily Republican. San Diego used to be one for many, many years. I think we're just barely Republican in votership at this point. But where has the Republican party lost California voters? Is it in ideology or is it in demographics?

CATHLEEN DECKER: It's both, essentially. But to move back a little bit from your question, this is not -- poling results are the majority or the, you know, preponderance or whatever. There certainly are pockets of California where Republicans dominate. And you can look at the congressional delegation and see that inland California -- generally there's a general division between the coast and inland. The coastal counties tend to be much more democratic in voter registration and volting behavior. Of the more inland counties tend to reflect Republican votes much more. And so the balance always is, you know, who's in control? Right now, the population centers around the coast. So it's beneficial if your voters are in a population center, that certainly has helped the Democratic Party. In terms of whether the problem has become is -- whether the problem has been, it's both Democrats and ideology. Of it's demographics in two ways. California is a much more minority state than, say, the country is. In the exit polls, not our poll accident but in the network exit polls that were done from the November election in the country, 78 percent of the voters who cast ballots were white. In California, it was 62 percent. So that -- and most of the rest being Latino. So that shows you, you know, that demographically, Latinos are voting overwhelmingly for the Democratic Party. Neither of the two parties are a majority in California but Democrats are 44 percent and Republicans are 30. So it obviously takes a lot more for a Republican to get to that 50 percent plus one. And also the other problem is that increasingly voters in California are nonpartisan. They do not attach themselves to a party. But those nonpartisans who are largely younger voters, tend to vote with the Democratic Party. And if you look at the poll results by age, we have, you know, younger voters and Latino voters both are much more prone to call themselves liberal. They are the dominant factor looking ahead, and that is a big issue for the Republican party to deal with, which is that your growing segments of voters are not on your side. The segments of voters that are older and have been dependable voters all along, but are not going to be around forever, those are the Republicans voters. So that's the sort of move that the party knows it has to make, is to appeal to younger not as ideological, and demographically not, you know, tradition Republican voters.

MAUREEN CAVANAUGH: And yet, at the same time, Cathleen, this LA Times USC poll also found that what Republican voters say about the kind of candidates that they need is not necessarily jiving with what other people think the Republicans need to do in order to widen the base of their party.

CATHLEEN DECKER: Exactly. And that's the big problem, you know, walking those two paths is very difficult for any candidate. In California, we found that voters who sided with both Whitman and Fiorina, which would be your Republican base, essentially, wanted a more conservative Republican candidate in the future by a 27 point margin. Voters who didn't vote for Whitman and Fiorina, so essentially the majority of voters, want a more moderate Republican candidate by almost the same margin, 23 points. So there's a 50 point swing in what the primary voters want and what the general election voters want. And the system will be different next time out because we'll have different districts, we'll have an open primary, but none the less, that's sort of a snapshot of whether people's heads are at. Voters who don't vote Republican want the party to move to the middle. Ful and voters who do vote Republican want the party it move to the right.

Q. In the results of your poll, did you find any Republican candidate that independents sort of like indeed this last election?

CATHLEEN DECKER: We only asked about Whitman and Fiorina, because it was just coming off of the election here.

MAUREEN CAVANAUGH: Right. Of.

CATHLEEN DECKER: And the nonpartisan voters did not like them particularly. They lost both democratic voters, certainly, and they lost declined to state voters ussa. So they were not particularly popular. I can't say whether down the ballot, that would have been the case. But certainly looking at the results, which is that Democrats won if the attorney general members holdup, every single state wide seat, they picked up a legislative seat, and they didn't lose any congressional seats. And this occurring in a year when initially Republicans swamped Democrats. That tells you a lot about the relative popularity of all Republican candidates. In fact, the campaign manager for Steve coolie, the Los Angeles district attorney whose race is still being counted for attorney general sent out a memo the other day saying that just by having an R, Republican designation after his name, Coolie had lost votes. And our poling, our numbers, if you look at what he got out of this race and he's gotten in LA County in past races, show that coolie lost hundreds of thousands of votes that he previously had gotten while running as a nonpartisan. Those votes deserted him when he was running as a Republican.

MAUREEN CAVANAUGH: I see.

CATHLEEN DECKER: So that's -- the symbolism there is pretty profound. If your party designation sinks you, then the party has got a bad image.

MAUREEN CAVANAUGH: Now, Cathleen, you told us about the yet how demographically as the voter population in it California becomes younger and perhaps less white that the idea of -- that maybe that may not be good for the Republican party here in California. But you also mentioned some other things that might actually help. And that is how we'll have new districts and things of that nature. Tell us a little bit about that.

CATHLEEN DECKER: The districts are redrawn every ten years after the census results. So we're coming up on the time to draw it. California voters have -- traditionally, those districts have been drawn by incumbent legislators because of that, they have tended to protect incumbent legislators. So you've had some artfully drawn district lines that incorporate the voters that the legislators want to be appearing in front of. And there's been much hew and cry over the notion that voters who live near each other have not been in the same district because they don't fit the parameters that the legislator wants. Starting this next time, lines will be drawn by a city's committee on redistricting. Both the legislative and the congressional lines so the argument generally is that that will produce more consistent lines and a more consistent pattern. And I have not heard of much that indicates that that will benefit the Republican party. That may tend to -- that may sort of moderate some districts that have been drawn to protect Republican incumbent the. So I'm not sure that they'll essentially benefit from that. Certainly they're hoping they will, and no one knows sort of what lines will ultimately be drawn. So there's certainly that possibility. But generally speaking there's also a lot of fear attached to that. That some districts that have grown increasingly Latino in the last ten years, but where the incumbent Republican legislator has been protected, that those districts will be much more competitive.

MAUREEN CAVANAUGH: Interesting. But at least we won't be drawn by the democratic majority, right.

CATHLEEN DECKER: Well, the district lines have tended to protect both Republicans and Democrats incumbents.

MAUREEN CAVANAUGH: Right.

CATHLEEN DECKER: So that's essentially been the pay off. They had to get votes so they protected both sides.

MAUREEN CAVANAUGH: Both sides. I want to thank you for sharing this information with us, Cathleen.

CATHLEEN DECKER: Any time. Thank you.

MAUREEN CAVANAUGH: I've been speaking with LA Times reporter Cathleen Decker. If you would like to comment, please go on-line, KPBS.org/These Days. You've been listening to These Days on KPBS.

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