Wording matters: Decoding mixed messages on gas tax and rent control from new poll

Do California voters actually hate a tax but not want to repeal it?

It might seem so based on their answers in a poll released tonight from the Public Policy Institute of California.

Asked whether they support Proposition 6—a measure that would repeal a recent increase in the state gas tax and nix roughly $5 billion from the state transportation budget—a majority of likely voters polled said they oppose the repeal, compared to only 39 percent in favor. That’s bad news for the proponents of Prop. 6, including Republican gubernatorial candidate John Cox.

But here’s the key: That question provided voters with the state-approved description of Prop. 6 that will appear on their ballots: “Eliminates Certain Road Repair and Transportation Funding. Requires Certain Fuel Taxes and Vehicle Fees be Approved by the Electorate.”

When the same voters were asked whether they favor simply repealing the gas tax hike, with no mention of the specific ballot measure language, 50 percent said that they would gladly roll it back.

Survey respondents sent similarly mixed messages on Proposition 10, which, if passed, would repeal the decades-long ban on new rent control laws in California. A majority of voters were inclined to support rent control as an idea, but when given the precise language of the proposition, more than not said they oppose the actual effort to expand rent control. Even a majority of renters said that they plan to vote “no.”

“It’s not unusual for voters to approve of something in concept, but then get to the proposition and find things about the specific details that they might not support,” Mark Baldassarre, president of the institute, explained.

That’s why proposed ballot measure titles and summaries sometimes trigger legal challenges.

One glimmer of hope for the “Yes on 6” campaign: Republican voters appear much more enthusiastic about the measure than Democrats. Elected leaders and activists within the GOP are counting on Prop. 6 to gin up enough anti-tax turnout to save them from an electoral shellacking in November. The fact that 61 percent of Republicans say the ballot measure is “very important,” compared to 43 percent of both Democrats and independents suggests they may be onto something.

This week, gas tax proponents announced plans to place on the 2020 ballot a measure that they say will pay for the gas tax repeal by diverting certain tax revenues to road maintenance projects, cutting union-negotiated compensation packages and terminating the state’s high-speed rail project. But it’s too early to say whether voters will warm to Prop. 6 once they learn that there’s a plan in the works to pay for it—or whether the numbers actually add up.

“People enter the world of propositions with some skepticism,” said Baldassarre. “They usually decide to vote against them unless they’re really given a compelling reason to vote yes. And so far, at least, (that compelling reason) is not there.”

But whatever uncertainty the public is feeling about these two propositions, California’s political class isn’t prepping for a close fight on either front.

In our latest installment of the Target Book Insider Track Survey—a poll of the consultants, lobbyists and other political movers and shakers at the center of California politics—an overwhelming majority predict the effort to repeal the rent control ban will go down in flames. The new PPIC poll results echo that. Plus the “no” campaign is currently outspending proponents nearly 5-to-1.

In an earlier edition of the Insider Track Survey, respondents predicted Prop. 6 would fail, too.

The PPIC voter poll also offered good news to Democrats counting on progressive electoral energy to dislodge Republicans from their majority in the House of Representatives. The survey found that 54 percent of likely California voters plan on voting for their local Democratic candidate, while 37 percent said they favor the Republican. Those results mirror the 55-41 margin reported in a recent USC Dornsife/LA Times poll.

More worrisome for the GOP is that according to the PPIC results voters are evenly split between the two parties across the 11 most competitive congressional districts in the state. Nine are currently represented by a Republican.

At the top of the ballot, the survey results also reiterated the conventional wisdom about the two largest statewide races in 2018: Democratic Lt. Gov. Gavin Newsom’s lead over Cox has narrowed but remains wide (51 percent to 39 percent). U.S. Sen. Dianne Feinstein’s support has also fallen but she is still outpacing challenger state Sen. Kevin de León by a healthy 11 percentage points. A 53 percent majority of likely voters said they approve of the job that Feinstein is doing in Washington D.C. But nearly 1 in 4 voters said expected to not vote in the race, which because of California’s top-two primary is now a Democrat-vs-Democrat showdown.

Will Feinstein’s handling of Brett Kavanaugh’s Supreme Court confirmation hearings affect her electoral chances? Not much, say a majority of political insiders. Fifty-eight percent of respondents in the Insider Track poll said it would make “no difference at all.”

Learn more about Prop. 6 and Prop. 10 in the videos below:

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