Apparently, we voters are kind of dumb when it comes to fiscal policy.
That’s the demoralizing takeaway from a recent statewide survey by a trio of Sacramento State University research bodies. While the questions tracked familiarity with local spending issues, the disappointing results implicate every voter from 1 Sports Parkway here in Sacramento to 1600 Pennsylvania Avenue in Washington, D.C., our government-shutdown capital.
The survey, which quizzed nearly 940 randomly selected adults living in cities and incorporated towns around California, found that a plurality know jack about municipal-government spending, where their taxes go or what they’re voting for.
I can relate.
I used to make a tradition of sitting down with my dad before Election Day to hash out what, exactly, a local-spending initiative proposed. The cram sessions were painstaking—and helpful. More often than not, propositions that looked great on ballot paper turned out to be garbage. The most cynical ballot authors count on voters reading the “free money for everyone” initiative titles and skipping the dreary details about nonexistent fiduciary oversight and bond indebtedness.
Today, I get paid to follow the money. It’s often a confounding slog through creative arithmetic (does the Sacramento Convention Center Complex make the city money or lose it?) and rosy projections (taxpayers will get back their $300 million investment in a new Sacramento Kings Arena through … parking revenues?)
So, I sympathize with some of the survey’s findings.
For instance, 75 percent of respondents incorrectly believed their local representatives spend more on food stamps, Medi-Cal or aid to other California cities than they do on public safety, which is the only actual expenditure on the list. Most couldn’t say whether California’s budget picture improved recently (it has), whether the state carried a deficit last year (it didn’t?) or what they spent on sales tax (I looked it up: Measure U boosted Sacramento’s to 8.5 percent).
A bunch of people thought local sales taxes were too high, yet magically wanted as much or more spent on public safety, infrastructure, local parks and economic development.
The study’s authors leave us with a provocative question: “[M]ight representative democracy actually discourage good fiscal governance?”
I don’t think Sac State researchers are suggesting that fewer people vote. But we better start doing our damn homework.