Monday, July 25, 2011

Are Californians Already Caving on Higher Taxes? Not Quite

Leave it to the LA Times to not miss a chance to talk up Californians' receptiveness to higher taxes. Today, the Times reports the latest nugget from its recent poll, conducted in partnership with USC's Dorfside College: a majority of the poll's respondents favor allowing local governments and school districts to put their own tax measures before voters. This idea was embodied, of course, in Darrell Steinberg's SB 653. Steinberg largely proposed the measure in order to bully Republican lawmakers into cooperating with tax hikes in the spring, and has shelved it for the time being. But does this poll suggest that voters are already weary of the Legislature's campaign to extort higher taxes out of them by cutting funding to services they want?

The citizens are already caving to our wishes!

For two reasons, not quite. For one thing, the poll population skews towards older Californians, with almost a quarter of respondents 65 and older, and over half being over 50. Insofar as retirees are less likely to appreciate the effects of higher taxes on local economies, and insofar as older Californians tend to be much wealthier than the working-age population these days, it stands to reason that they'd be more attuned to the benefits of new taxes than the costs. To the extent that California is much younger than the poll's population, it's not clear that this result generalizes well.

More importantly, though, the poll does a terrible job of presenting the local-tax issue to respondents. For one thing, the proposition the respondents heard was much more narrow than SB 653: what 58% of respondents said they approved of was allowing local governments and school districts to impose excise taxes on alcohol, tobacco, soda, and oil extraction, with the stipulation that voters would approve the increases. Steinberg's bill, for one thing, included income taxes, other sales taxes, use taxes, and vehicle license fees, and would include medical marijuana in its excise plan. So, to be clear, a majority of respondents don't approve of what might actually be on the table, because they weren't asked their opinion of Steinberg's proposal.

Second, the poll then "educates" respondents on the issue by offering the pro and con arguments on the proposal, and asks them their opinion again. The second time around, only 55% of respondents approved of the local taxes. Yet the poll's presentation of the arguments is terrible. The pro statement reads: "Supporters of this measure say that after years of cutbacks to local schools, public safety, and other services, local governments need options for raising revenue, and those decisions should be up to the voters in the local area." The con statement reads: "Opponents of this measure say that raising taxes hurts businesses and prevents them from creating jobs. At a time when California taxpayers are already overburdened, the state legislature should not make it easier for government to raise taxes." The pro statement makes clear that the matter should be up to the voters, but there's nothing in Steinberg's plan that would prevent governments from imposing them without voter approval. But the biggest problem here? Local governments and school districts already have options for raising revenues! Cities already have the authority to put their own sales tax increases before voters, and can impose hotel and utility taxes. County governments are also able to raise sales taxes. And school districts can bump up their revenues by putting parcel tax measures on local ballots.

In other words, had the question been presented accurately to a poll population that was representative of Californians, we'd be more inclined to agree with the Times' interpretation of these results. But it wasn't, so we aren't.


  1. The Times engaging in push polling? Say it ain't so!

  2. Regular readers of this blog tend to conclude that the Times is incapable of conducting an honest poll on taxes. And they're correct, so far as I can tell.