The U.S. Supreme Court’s decision ordering California to reduce its prison population by 30,000 over the next two years has sent shockwaves through the Capitol as legislators and the Brown Administration struggle with how the state will comply.

Some are hoping that the ruling, and the attention it is getting, will give new momentum to Gov. Jerry Brown’s proposal to extend about $11 billion in temporary tax increases that are expiring this year. Brown wants to use some of that money to reimburse counties for taking control of inmates who have short sentences or have been returned to prison for violating the conditions of their parole.

Voters, the thinking goes, will be more likely to approve the tax hikes if they think one of the consequences of not doing so will be the release of dangerous felons to the streets.

Setting aside the question of whether such releases really need to happen, is this really an issue that can drive voter sentiment?

Maybe. But it depends on how it is framed.

In the early 1990s Gov. Pete Wilson and the Legislature passed a temporary half-cent sales tax increase as part of a deficit reduction plan. Then, when the tax was about to expire, they put it on the ballot packed as funding for local public safety. The voters bought it, and the tax remains in place today.

So if voters could be convinced that a piece of Brown’s tax package would enhance their safety, they might be more inclined to go along. But there are pitfalls in this strategy.

First, unlike Wilson’s tax, which stood alone, this one would be part of a much broader package funding other programs and services. Some of those, such as education, are popular with the voters. Others are not.

And the least popular state program among California voters turns out to be the prison system. Whether out of a lack of sympathy for inmates and the conditions in which they live, or cynicism about the correctional officers and their pay and benefits, voters repeatedly pick prisons as the program that should be the first to lose funding when the state runs short of money.

A poll by the Public Policy Institute of California in January illustrated this point perfectly. In that survey of 2005 adults, 75 percent said they opposed cutting kindergarten through 12th grade education, 63 percent opposed cutting higher education, and 60 percent opposed cutting health and human services.

But 70 percent of those surveyed said they supported cutting funding for the prisons.

So if voters think they are getting more public safety for their money, they might go along. But if they think they are preserving funding for the prisons or doing anything to improve conditions for the felons locked within them, voters are likely to turn thumbs down to the proposal.

Daniel Weintraub is editor of the California Health Report at