Politics

How California Stopped Hating its Legislature

December 6, 2013

By Jeremy B. White

As surely as lobbyists can rely on finding work in Sacramento, Californians can be counted on to disapprove of their Legislature's performance. But the level of skepticism toward state legislators appears to be ebbing as the state's fiscal footing firms.

A new Field Poll gauging how Californian voters view their state lawmakers preserves the negative perception that has underpinned such polls for years, with 44 percent disapproving and 40 percent approving. That still marks a striking improvement from the last few years, when polls regularly showed Californians disdaining the Legislature by 40-point majorities. The gap was 15 percentage points as recently as February.

The explanation for the rising optimism is twofold, Field Poll director Mark DiCamillo said: an improving fiscal situation and the restraint of Democrats who have solidified their grip on the levers of power.

"I think it's economic, but also the way the Legislature has reacted to the good news," DiCamillo said. "They haven't gone on a spending binge or done things that are over the top."

David Farquhar, a 47-year-old woodworker who lives in Santa Cruz County, was one of those who said he approves of the Legislature. He said Sacramento lawmakers are performing better than their gridlocked Washington, D.C., counterparts and pointed to an improving job market and the lack of a budget deficit as signs of progress.

"They must be doing something right," Farquhar said. "It's probably a combination of things, but we're working."

More respondents than not said California is moving in the right direction, as 43 percent said the state is on an upward trajectory against 42 percent who said it is heading the wrong way.

While that is far more optimistic than in past years, when Californians consistently reported an overwhelmingly gloomy outlook on their state's prospects, it represents a slight decline from earlier this year.

The split in February of 2013 was more positive, with 48 percent saying the state was on the right track vs. 42 percent saying it had veered in the wrong direction. That poll came shortly after a 2012 election that saw voters empowering two-thirds Democratic majorities in both houses and passing Proposition 30, the tax increase championed by Gov. Jerry Brown.

Even if the optimism has waned a bit, registered voters still believe the two-thirds supermajorities are a good thing. Forty-five percent said Democratic dominance was good for California, while 39 percent were leery of it.

A deeper look at those numbers shows a partisan divide. Sixty-nine percent of Democrats said the two-thirds majorities are a good thing and 79 percent of Republicans labeled it bad, with no-party-affiliation voters split 41-39. In a state where Republican voter registration has dipped below 30 percent, the resounding Democratic support was enough to push the overall numbers into the positive.

"We're a partisan state on many issues. You see that characteristic and you can see which way the wind is blowing by the nonpartisans," whose division on the supermajority underscores a lack of consensus, DiCamillo said.

While he believes California's tax and spending levels are unsustainable and worries about the state's inhospitable business climate, Lakewood resident Bryan Reed is not a Republican. Reed, 52, is part of the growing number of Californians who register for neither party, an independence reflected in his view on the supermajority.

"I wouldn't like a two-thirds Republican majority or two-thirds Democrat," said Reed, who runs a center that trains automotive workers. "Each side has good ideas; it shouldn't just be one or the other. If you have a significant enough imbalance that one side can just dictate to the people what's going to happen, that's horrible."

(c)2013 The Sacramento Bee

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