Molly Munger is rolling the dice and the stakes couldn't be higher for public schools, which she seeks to rescue, or for Californians who depend on dwindling spending for social and health care programs.
Munger is the wealthy Los Angeles attorney who is bankrolling a signature drive to place an initiative on the November ballot that would raise income taxes by $10 billion a year and deliver the bulk of it directly to public schools.
On Thursday, she and her supporters including the PTA held a press conference to announce that they are pressing ahead. The public loves the idea, they said. Voters want to restore public schools to what they once were, they said.
"We wouldn't be launching if we didn't think voters want this," Munger said.
Brushing aside Gov. Jerry Brown's entreaties that she stand down, Munger says 60 percent of the electorate embraces the concept. But that figure is contradicted by the latest survey conducted by the nonpartisan Field Poll. Munger's own polling also raises questions about her statement.
Field reported Thursday that voters are rejecting Munger's initiative by a margin of 45 percent for it, and 48 percent against it. That might be shrugged off; she hasn't started to shell out the millions she is prepared to spend. But based on long experience, experts say that unless support for initiatives starts above 60 percent, they will lose if there is any opposition.
Munger's internal polling also casts doubt on the level of support, at least at first cut. A Munger-commissioned poll taken last November showed 28 percent of voters strongly supported it and 11 percent offered soft support, far below the 50 percent-plus one required to pass an initiative.
Pollsters then read individual elements of the initiative to the respondents. Most provisions test well. Money, for example, would bypass the Sacramento money pit and go directly to schools. And there would be regular audits. After being read the more popular elements, respondents looked upon the measure more favorably.
But campaigns aren't sunshine and daffodils.
At the end of the poll, after pro- and some anti-arguments were read, respondents were split, with 33 percent strongly supportive, 14 percent somewhat supportive, and 9 percent undecided but leaning in support. Munger counts on winning over the leaners. That's a gamble.
The question of viability is fundamental. Brown is pushing a measure to raise income and sales taxes by about $5 billion a year for five years. The California Federation of Teachers has an initiative to jack up income taxes on the 13,000 wealthiest Californians, who earn $1 million or more annually. That would raise about $6 billion a year.
Brown and others are convinced that if all three tax hikes appear on the November ballot, all will fail, with Munger's doing the worst, down around 17 percent in a poll commissioned by Brown.
Brown has labor support and some business backing for his measure. But the millionaires' tax, and possibly Munger's measure, almost certainly would attract rich opponents who could easily spend tens of millions.
David Kieffer, leader of the Service Employees International Union in California, is backing Brown's measure. The others have "good motives," he said. But they ought to ask: "Who has the best chance of passage?"
He said "no amount of money can save Munger," and predicted that the millionaire's tax, while popular now, could face an opposition campaign of $40 million.
"It is one thing to show up with a check of $2 million (to qualify a measure for the ballot)," Kieffer said. "But showing up with $35 (million) to $40 million is another question. If you can't write that check, you can't win."
"We're willing to spend that order of magnitude," Munger told me.
Munger's wealth comes from being the daughter of Charles Munger, Warren Buffett's business partner. She spent the first half of her career as a federal prosecutor and lawyer in a high-end firm in downtown Los Angeles, and has devoted the second half of her career trying to better public education and battle discrimination. Her good intentions are not in doubt.
If she proceeds with her measure, and Brown and the California Federation of Teachers do the same, voters will have their work cut out for them. In all likelihood, they will vote against them all.
Then budget cuts will come. Those cuts will inflict pain, though not on people who promote initiatives, or on consultants who will reap a windfall. Munger must be feeling lucky..