Don’t Believe New Revenues Are a Losing Issue

In polling, the answer you get depends heavily on the question. Obvious enough, right?

Few should understand this point better than the prestigious, independent Field Institute, whose polls on California issues often contribute to the public debate.

So why is Field polluting the discussion around revenues in California with bad questions and bad data?

We can and must do better, and soon.

The most recent Field Poll scans the horizon for support levels on prospective special-election issues

(get the poll here, and the fascinating cross-tab results here).

It’s helpful to see, in this poll, where Californians would cut to help reduce the state budget deficit. Basically, most voters would cut nothing except prisons and, perhaps, the costs of environmental regulation. Republicans would cut a lot more, except K-12 public schools.

The broad consensus is against almost any cuts that would be needed to meet the state’s widening budget chasm.

So are people willing to support new revenues? (OK, let’s go ahead and say “tax increases.”)

Not according to Field. But look at how they asked the question. Registered voters were asked to respond to: “I would be willing to pay higher taxes to help the state balance its budget.”

Even that poor wording got 43% support overall. Democrats and independent voters gave it 53% support.

But look at what’s missing in the question. The wording speaks to who would pay the higher taxes – the respondent – but how much? And for what purpose?

There’s no limit stated, no type of tax enumerated. And the purpose is as grim as they get: “help[ing] the state balance its budget.” If you have ever seen California voters talk about the state budget, they view it as a black hole rife with waste.

It’s astonishing that there’s a core of 43% willing to shovel their own money into a ditch to help “the state” fix “its budget.”

Of course there are many better ways to ask this kind of question. For instance, you could ask voters if they’d pay more to protect the specific programs and services they like. (Which is basically everything but prisons.) Linking tax increases to specific purposes helps a lot.

Or you could ask about specific kinds of taxes that don’t mainly affect the individuals responding to the poll. An oil extraction tax gets big numbers in polling for lots of reasons, one of them being who it’s targeted at (highly profitable oil companies).

An increase in income taxes on the wealthiest Californians similarly scores well because – as much as we may try – most Californians don’t fit into the top 1%, 5%, or even 10% on the income scale. (Disclosure: I managed the campaign for Prop. 63, which added a 1% surcharge on annual income over $1 million to support mental health programs.)

And if you present the facts properly, I’d bet you’d see majorities supporting a split-roll property tax, or at least a fix to change-in-ownership rules for commercial property.

We need to educate voters about the degree to which we have a revenue problem that’s been papered over for 20 years and salvaged occasionally by bogus economic bubbles. There are lots of sensible ways to raise money and not have undue impact on the people who can least afford it. If there’s ever going to be a time to find billions of dollars in steady new revenue sources, we’re pretty near the “hair on fire” phase now where that will be both necessary and possible.

Don’t believe you’d be limited to 43% support for a raft of revenue measures. Smartly designed, longer-lasting revenue solutions will have an audience – an even bigger audience if we don’t see this special election happen, or if the tax extensions fail and we flop into devastating austerity. Let’s get to work now.