Gov. Jerry Brown is a big proponent of high-speed rail, but if the Legislature votes this week to fund the project, it could hurt him in the fall.
A survey released today suggests the project could be a liability for Brown, coming as the Democratic governor lobbies for a November tax initiative and warns of billions of dollars in spending cuts if it fails.
A fifth of likely voters who support Brown's proposal to raise taxes say they would be less likely to support it if the Legislature appropriates money for high-speed rail, the Field Poll found.
Lawmakers are expected to act on the $68 billion project today or Friday. Fifty-six percent of likely voters oppose the project, according to the poll.
"Here you have an unpopular, multibillion-dollar long-term project kind of rearing its head in the middle of this budget-cutting," poll director Mark DiCamillo said. "It undercuts that whole message, and that's really what's jeopardizing the Brown measure."
Public support for the rail project has deteriorated since voters approved it in 2008. The California High-Speed Rail Authority has been hurt by rising cost estimates and management miscues, as well as by the weak economy.
Brown's initiative proposes to raise the state sales tax and income taxes on California's highest earners. It maintains a tenuous lead, 54 percent to 38 percent, according to the poll.
Support is strongest among Democrats, at 73 percent, while Republicans oppose the measure, 64 percent to 27 percent. Majorities of all income groups support the initiative.
A majority of likely voters 54 percent say the high-speed rail vote will have no effect on their opinion of Brown's tax initiative. Yet 31 percent of likely voters, including 21 percent of those who currently support the tax measure, say they would be less likely to support taxes if rail funding is approved.
Eleven percent of likely voters say they would be more likely to support Brown's tax initiative if the rail funding is approved, according to the poll.
Anti-tax groups preparing to campaign against the tax initiative are planning to highlight the rail project if it goes forward, using it as an example of wasteful spending.
Last month, Jon Coupal, president of the Howard Jarvis Taxpayers Association, called high-speed rail a "silver platter" for the anti-tax campaign.
The Legislature is set to consider approving $2.6 billion in state rail bond funds and $3.2 billion in federal funds to start construction of the high-speed rail project in the Central Valley, as well as about $2 billion for regional rail projects, particularly in the San Francisco and Los Angeles areas.
Joshua Gurney, a Democrat who is leaning toward supporting Brown's tax increase, likes the idea of high-speed rail, but he said the price has become too high.
Gurney, a 21-year-old UCLA student, said that legislative approval of funding for the rail project might influence his thinking about the tax initiative.
"The Legislature, they represent us," Gurney said. "But it would kind of make me mad."
Tom Green, an unemployed construction worker and independent voter from Elk Grove, hopes the Legislature votes to fund the rail project.
"I think if they had something like that, everybody would save so much money, gas money, time," he said. "It would be so much better if we had something like that here."
But Green, 33, said he'll vote for the tax increase no matter how the Legislature votes on rail. To him, the issues are not tied, and he said, "I don't care what anybody else does."
Brown's tax measure remains more popular than a competing tax measure backed by civil rights lawyer Molly Munger and the California State PTA. Voters are evenly divided on that measure, 46 percent to 46 percent, according to the poll.
Brown's tax measure is also more popular than a third measure involving changes to the state's corporate tax formula. That initiative, which is proposed by hedge fund manager Tom Steyer, is favored by likely voters 44 percent to 43 percent, according to the poll.
DiCamillo said business taxes usually poll better, at least initially, than Steyer's.
"I think given the weakness of the state's economy, voters really are hesitant about socking it to business," DiCamillo said. "At another time, if the economy were doing a little bitter, I think this Steyer measure would be supported by a larger margin, at least at the early going."