Call it the first hint of the debate to come over taxes, perhaps as soon as California's next statewide ballot: A new poll finds a majority of likely voters are willing to extend the life of Gov. Jerry Brown's temporary taxes from 2012.
Wednesday night's poll by the nonpartisan Public Policy Institute of California finds 52 percent of likely voters support the continuation of the taxes enacted by Proposition 30, taxes that otherwise begin to wind down between 2016 and 2018.
"Whenever you're talking about taxing the voter, to have majority support is noteworthy," said Mark Baldassare, PPIC's president and pollster.
Prop. 30 boosted income taxes for Californians with earnings above $250,000, as well the state's portion of the sales tax by a quarter of a cent. And the measure, approved by 55 percent of voters on Nov. 4, 2012, has had a major impact on the state budget's bottom line.
How major? Data provided by the state Department of Finance project that Prop. 30 tax revenues will have totaled $23.28 billion by the summer of 2016.
That's more money than expected when voters went to the polls more than two years ago -- a reflection of both an improved California economy and a governor who has consistently made only conservative predictions about future tax revenue.
Now, lest anyone on the pro-tax extension side start popping those champagne corks, it's important to remember that the historic rule of thumb in California politics has been that early support below 60 percent for potential ballot measures is, at best, a sign of weakness. And regardless of national media narratives, Californians have a long track record of being reluctant to vote for additional taxes.
Still, the new data provide an interesting glimpse into how the Prop. 30 taxes are now viewed by Californians. PPIC's polling team provided some details on support by subgroups for a Prop. 30 tax extension.
Yes, Democrats and liberals are those who are most inclined for another round of boosting sales tax. But they're not alone. Also supporting a Prop. 30 tax extension:
- 53 percent of self-described moderates
- 58 percent of those surveyed between the ages of 18 and 34
- 63 percent of those who say California is headed in the right direction
- 58 percent of those who say the state is in store for "good times" economically over the next 12 months
- 32 percent of Republicans who answered the survey (which seems, based on previous tax questions, pretty high)
There's also noticeable majority support in the San Francisco Bay Area and San Diego and Orange counties, with much more of a split decision in Los Angeles and the Central Valley.
The poll comes as a number of Democrats and liberal-leaning groups ponder ways to keep the Prop. 30 taxes in place. And the new poll may give them a potential base of support from which to work. But key to any future debate is something that PPIC's poll doesn't measure: the level of voter support for making Prop. 30 taxes permanent, not just "extending" them as asked here.
And perhaps even more important: whether a potential 2016 ballot measure keeps only the income tax boost on the most wealthy. Just roll back the calendar to early 2012, when liberal activists and union groups dropped their "millionaires tax" proposal in favor of signing on to Brown's Prop. 30, which also boosted sales tax rates.
Back then, polling suggested a much higher level of support for a tax only on the high-earner income. Might that still be true now, thus suggesting the PPIC survey is measuring the base -- not the potential peak -- of support?
Regardless, the Prop. 30 do-over debate is going to come back to the man in the corner office: the governor. And at this point, he's a tough sell.
"I said that's a temporary tax, and that's my position," Brown told reporters when unveiling his new state budget on Jan. 9.
The governor, who has gambled a lot on the political and policy success of the Prop. 30 taxes, framed the debate over funding a number of government services as part of what he called the "inevitable pressure" for additional tax revenues.
"I don't know that the people are going to vote for them," he said.
And what the governor thinks, or does, on the issue is important. After all, the new PPIC poll finds his job approval ratings at 61 percent -- its highest level since he returned to the governor's office in 2011.