California Public Opinion Runs Against Governor Brown

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Next Thursday, Governor Jerry Brown will kick off the 2016 legislative year with the annual State of the State address likely to focus on a lot of unfinished business the Governor was hoping to resolve last year.  This will include funding gaps for Medi-Cal, transportation infrastructure maintenance, and further attention to climate change. However, like in 2015 when some of Brown's policy prescriptions ran up against wary legislators, the Governor's top 2016 priorities are likely to hit a similar public opinion wall.

Today, the Hoover Institution will release the January-February 2016 issue of Eureka featuring commentary on what if Californians dictated the state of the state rather than the Governor. The issue highlights 1) how Washington, D.C. and Sacramento may (at first glance) have much in common, but in reality are as distinct as the coasts on which they are located, 2) why California's existing transportation funding framework is outdated and requires a new model, and 3) whether the Democratic caucus in Sacramento can (and should) put aside their differences to move forward Governor Brown's central climate change provision - a reduction in petroleum use.

Sacramento - The Forgotten Capital: When it comes to Washington, D.C. and Sacramento, the fact that both of them are capital cities is pretty much where the similarities end. While the President's State of the Union Address is covered during prime time on every TV station, the Governor's State of the State speech is barely even referenced in state newspapers. But most of all, while national newspapers and television clamor for the best political reporting talent, since Schwarzenegger left Sacramento the clamoring among California's media has been for the exit. And overall, the public doesn't appear to be missing the coverage of Sacramento. In the last decade, Google Trend interest in search terms related to the state's government has dropped almost 90%. Sacramento literally is out of sight and out of mind.

The Mileage Based User Fee - the New Paradigm to Fund Transportation: Since 2009, the gap between vehicle miles traveled per capita and net taxable gasoline sales (excluding aviation gasoline) per capita has grown by roughly 10%. While gasoline sales were once a decent proxy for road usage, the growing gap reflects increasing gasoline efficiency standards and electric and hybrid vehicle use becoming more popular. The current funding model to maintain and modernize the state's roadways is no longer sufficient. Tasked by SB 1077, the California Transportation Commission has developed a framework for a pilot program to test the viability of a road usage charge that is about to go into effect. The real question that remains, though, isn't whether a mileage tax is better than the gas tax, but whether Californians will be open to accepting it.

Electric and Hybrid Vehicle Use - the Answer to SB 350's Problems?: In 2015, Governor Jerry Brown enthusiastically pushed for SB 350 - a landmark anti-climate change bill that aimed to reduce petroleum use by 50%, increase renewable portfolio standards by 50%, and double building energy efficiency. Brown, however, underestimated the resistance even some in his own party had for the petroleum reduction provision. This resulted in it being removed at the last minute of the 2015 session to save the remainder of SB 350. How the reduction would hit low- to middle-income households was central to the provision's removal. But reducing petroleum use is crucial to Brown's crusade against climate change; in 2013, it accounted for 62% of California's CO2 emissions - almost twice the level of the rest of the United States. As laid out by Stanford professor Bruce Cain, an option for Brown and his allies would be to revive the petroleum provision alongside a consumer assistance program for low- to middle-income individuals to purchase electric and hybrid vehicles. But even that may not sway moderate Democratic lawmakers, especially in an election year.

While it's impossible to determine all of the policy debates that will occur in Sacramento this year, two are certain to appear: how to fund a growing transportation maintenance gap and what to do about the removed petroleum reduction piece of SB 350. It's unfortunate, however, that the depth of these debates will unlikely reach the majority of California's voters.

For a more in-depth look at these topics and an analysis on the January 2016 Golden State Poll - also related to Californians' opinions on the state of the state - keep your eye out for the January-February 2016 issue of Eureka at to be released on Thursday, January 14.


Carson Bruno is the assistant dean for admission and program relations at the Pepperdine School of Public Policy. Follow him on Twitter @CarsonJFBruno.

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