In the public policy arena, elected officials don’t want to be too far ahead nor too far behind public opinion. The trick is finding that balance of leading versus following.
On January 5th, Governor Brown briefly laid out three major policy prescriptions for 2015 and more broadly, his final term as Governor. On January 13th, the first Golden State Poll of 2015 took a look at the policy priorities Californians think the state government should focus on during 2015. Using both, we can figure out which of his policy proposals are ones where he should lead the public and on which ones he should follow.
In his inaugural/State of the State address, Brown focused 23 percent of the speech – measured in the number of words spent on that issue compared with the speech’s total word count – on combating climate change, 6 percent on announcing his plans to ask state workers to pre-fund their retiree healthcare, and 5 percent calling for more action on California’s aging infrastructure.
The Golden State Poll asked Californians, in the lead up to Brown’s State of the State address, what the top policy priorities should be for the state government in the coming year. “Strengthening the state’s economy” was the number 1 ranked top priority at 72 percent of likely voters, while “continuing the state’s high-speed rail project” was the last ranked top priority at 16 percent. “Dealing with the state’s water problems” at 69 percent and “improving the job situation” at 66 percent of likely voters rounded out the top three top priorities for 2015 among California’s most likely voters.
Across the board, Brown is out ahead of public opinion on his policy prescriptions. The highest rankings policy issue he mentioned was investing in the state infrastructure, which according to the Golden State Poll, 47 percent of likely voters named “improving the state’s roads, bridges, and public transportation” as the top priority (7th ranked top priority). Next up, at 34 percent and 15th rank, is “taking steps to make the public employee pension system fiscally sound.” Closing out Brown’s priorities is “dealing with global warming” at just 26 percent, which is the next to last top priority for the most likely California voters.
Thus, Brown is very far out ahead of public opinion. Yet, being a leader requires guiding public opinion on issues sometimes. To do so, however, you need to connect a lower priority issue with ones the public does prioritize.
Push ahead with pre-funding retiree healthcare: As I laid out in a January 9th Sacramento Bee column, Governor Brown is in the unique position to proverbially “go to China” on reforming California’s tax, budget, and pension systems. While just 34 percent of the most likely California voters named making California’s pension system fiscally sound a top priority, fixing the state’s pension and retiree healthcare unfunded obligations is crucial to ensuring a long-term balanced budget, which is viewed as a top priority among 61 percent of likely voters. Given the connection between these two issues, this is an issue that would be fiscally and politically prudent on which to lead the public rather than follow.
Seriously support actual infrastructure investment: Pat Brown’s – Jerry’s father – gubernatorial legacy was modernizing California’s infrastructure; from roads to water canals, Pat Brown ensured California had the structural wherewithal to grow both its population and its economy. Now, our infrastructure is in dire need of investment. The 2012 ACSE Infrastructure Report Card recommends California spend, annually, $65 billion on infrastructure investments. This issue is actually the one were Brown is best in line with public opinion. Not only do 47 percent of likely voters consider infrastructure a top priority, this issue is connected to a healthy economy and job market. In 2007, CNBC ranked California the 28th best state for business with a sub-category rank of 19th for transportation/infrastructure. By 2014, California had fallen 4 spots on the list with the state’s infrastructure rank falling 5 spots. At 72 percent and 66 percent, the economy and job market are among the top ranked issues among likely California voters also making this an area on which Brown would be wise to lead. But infrastructure spending doesn’t mean high-speed rail. In Brown’s Department of Finance 2014-2015 infrastructure plan, 45 percent of the total five-year $57 billion spending allocation was earmarked for the high-speed rail project. This is a top priority for just 16 percent of likely voters (the last ranked issue).
Despite California’s liberal leaning, Brown’s singular focus on combating climate change is too far from public opinion. While his fellow Democratic lawmakers will surely support his proposals, just 26 percent of likely California voters consider this a top priority; one reason: many already view California as a leader on climate change and hence, don’t see an urgency to do more. In all, 18 other issues rank higher among likely voters for Sacramento to focus on in the coming year and pushing an issue that threatens the number 1 ranked top priority – the economy – may be just too much to ask of Californians.
To learn more about the January 2015 Golden State Poll, CLICK HERE.