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Can Brown win tax vote with doomsday talk?


News10/KXTV - August 23, 2012

There's no mystery about the conventional path to getting voters to say yes to a ballot initiative: sell them on all the good things the measure does.

Which is what makes Gov. Jerry Brown's still nascent campaign for his Proposition 30 so interesting: it seems focused not on what happens if they vote yes, but the impending doom if voters say no.

In San Francisco on Wednesday pitching his multi-year income and sales tax increase, Brown said, "We have our flaws and our warts, but that's no reason to punish the kids of California."

On Tuesday in San Diego, the governor warned that the defeat of Prop 30 would be disastrous for schools.  "If we don't invest in our schools," Brown told the crowd, "we don't have a future."

And last week at the campaign kickoff in Sacramento, the governor emphasized several times that the initiative is the only thing that stands in the way of a $5 billion whack at education.

"Only this measure saves cuts this year," he said.  "There's no doubt about it."

Brown is correct in his assertion that, under the budget he signed into law almost two months ago, the defeat of Prop 30 would trigger automatic cuts for public schools.  Even so, the early messaging feels not that far from the infamous cover of National Lampoon's January 1973 edition: "If You Don't Buy This Magazine, We'll Kill This Dog."

Maybe the comparison is a little over the top, but the question remains: can Brown win the Prop 30 campaign by pointing out the downside more than the upside?

There's no lack of polling through the years showing the importance of schools and school funding to California voters, so it's natural that kids and teachers are going to be a prominent part of the pitch - even though the initiative's tax revenues will not result in a net dollar-for-dollar increase in school funding.

But a poll released Wednesday provides a possible early warning sign for a doomsday campaign: it may not be enough to win.

The USC/PACE poll (PDF) found that even after its 1,041 likely voters heard all the arguments regarding Prop 30 - including the possibility of additional school funding cuts - only 52.3 percent said they support the initiative.  And it fared almost exactly the same with parents as with non-parents.

"Proposition 30 is vulnerable," said Dan Schnur, director of USC's Institute of Politics in a conference call with reporters.  Schnur said the poll makes it clear that the governor will need to do something to change the initiative's "trajectory" with voters.

For starters, he made need to try and boost the importance of education funding in the mind of the electorate.  The USC/PACE poll found voters surveyed only ranked school funding fifth highest of their concerns - behind the economy, jobs, the state budget deficit, and 'wasteful government spending.'  We'll come back to that last one in a moment.

The poll seems to suggest that Brown could win some votes by talking up the part of Prop 30 that is not front and center: its help at balancing the state's bottom line.   Both those with and without kids who were surveyed seem more likely to support a tax increase if it also helps the state budget.  As if to reinforce that point, this poll - like so many before it - finds sizable opposition to Proposition 38, the temporary income tax hike that would only benefit schools.

But the new poll also seems to keep alive the notion that voters are peeved about the headlines coming out of Sacramento this summer about government spending -- from an expensive high speed rail project to the money hidden inside state parks bank accounts.

Almost 49 percent of likely voters picked 'cut wasteful spending before raising our taxes' as the best explanation for their Prop 30 opinion, compared to only 35 percent choosing 'take a stand against further budget cuts to schools and public safety' as their position.  That suggests a healthy number of current Prop 30 supporters aren't there because of the doomsday scenario.

(Among parents, it was surprisingly even more lopsided: 51.3 percent aligned with 'cut wasteful spending' and 33.2 percent seeing 'take a stand against further budget cuts' as closer to their thinking.)

So far, the governor has resisted the notion that there's any reason to link government spending on other things with his call for higher taxes.

"I mean, we have to be able to jump rope, chew gum, and do five other things, otherwise we're not going to make it," he said in San Francisco when asked whether it's a good idea to ask for more tax revenues at this juncture.

Over the next few weeks, it will be interesting to see whether Governor Brown sticks to his 'Don't make me pull the trigger (cuts)' approach on the campaign trail, or whether he shifts to a pitch that sells Prop 30's positives.   Or he could do something largely unseen in ballot measure campaigns -- paint the choice as lousy, but necessary.  That's an approach more akin to a candidate for elected office who's seen as the lesser of two evils - the 'Hey, I may not be great, but I'm better than the other guy' approach.

Then again, there's simplicity to Brown's current line of thought.  "There's no in-between," Brown said in San Diego.  "This is not about politics; it's about a choice."