Read the polls and you’d think the end was near for this, America’s largest state. One recent survey published by the state’s largest newspaper and repeated on every major radio and television outlet in California reported that 79 percent of the state’s residents believe their state’s best days are behind it.
At least that’s what the headline said and what was widely repeated – evidence that neither the headline writer nor the radio and TV reporters who regurgitated his work bothered to look at the poll question. The actual query asked whether residents believe things are going in the right direction or are “pretty seriously off track,” and 79 percent said matters are off track.
That’s hardly surprising when unemployment has topped 10 percent for months and “underemployment” – a term for persons not working or working part-time when they’d prefer full time work – runs about 25 percent. But it’s not the same as what the headline said. For there are signs aplenty that Californians are willing to work at putting things back on the right track – and even pay to do it.
Perhaps the best evidence for this appears in the results of the early November off-year election, where dozens of cities and school districts placed proposed new taxes before local voters. The vast majority of those proposals passed easily, even parcel taxes aimed at helping school districts.
Fully 24 of 36 local city tax or fee increase proposals that required only a majority vote passed. Three of five city tax increases passed where a two-thirds vote was needed. Seven of 11 school parcel tax proposals also passed with two-thirds votes and the two proposed school bond measures requiring a 55 percent majority both passed.
Altogether, 37 out of 57 local revenue measures passed. So plainly, where Californians were given the choice of trying to make improvements, the vast majority said yes.
How could this happen in a state where politicians continually bray that taxes are too high, that voters won’t tolerate any more levies? One reason is that each of these measures was local, involving schools or city services that directly affected large numbers of the people voting on them. Another was that these were not statewide campaigns, so there were no television commercials blaring about the evils of new taxes and threatening dire consequences for jobs and business if they passed. In fact, local business groups strongly backed the vast majority of these proposals.
Measures passed in locales from Culver City to Palm Springs, from Atherton, Dinuba and Vallejo to Norco, Fairfax and South Pasadena. Yes, 20 proposals failed, but even among defeated measures, none drew less than 42 percent of the vote. The widespread nature of those elections indicates the vote represented something like a cross section of California voters, and they plainly did not feel as pessimistic as the poll headline claimed.
There are other signs of potential for improvement. One is the fact that even though some businesses have relocated outside California to take advantage of cheap land and special tax breaks, more businesses continue to start up here than in any other state. Far more, in fact, than are leaving.
What’s more, some states – Wisconsin was first – are having second thoughts about the tax breaks they’ve granted migrating businesses and movie production companies looking for lucrative locations. Wisconsin this fall rescinded its benefits to production companies, concluding policing and other expenses made tax breaks for film production a losing proposition. North Carolina is mulling a similar move. Unemployment rates in those states – and neighboring Nevada, which campaigns constantly for California businesses to cross the state line – are as high or higher than California’s.
There’s also the reality expressed by Attorney General Jerry Brown in a recent interview. Brown, the only major Democrat now running for governor, observed that “This state has challenges, but it’s still very wealthy. The gross state product is $1.7 trillion and very few countries (seven, to be precise) can match that. So we know the wealth is here. What we need is a consensus to get that money moving.”
Brown, who leads every potential Republican rival by at least 20 points in recent surveys, might be the only active politician not using blatant economic scare tactics as next year’s campaign takes shape. Every other candidate sounds panicked, which makes it unsurprising that voters are unhappy with the state’s direction.
But propaganda-like political rhetoric about California’s supposed hopelessness and dysfunction is belied by the election results. Which is something Brown’s rivals might want to note.