One reason several months ago to think Gov. Jerry Brown's ballot measure to raise taxes might have a better chance of passing than previous, failed tax initiatives was its potential to look more like a local issue than a statewide one.
Local revenue measures are typically easier to pass, and by signing a budget requiring billions of dollars in cuts to education if his ballot measure failed, Brown forced local school districts to publicly consider the effect of such an outcome on their schools.
Throughout the state, school board members and superintendents have held headline-grabbing conversations about what midyear spending cuts they might make if Proposition 30 fails or about what popular programs they could afford if it passes.
"We communicated it pretty clearly," Fresno Unified School District Superintendent Michael Hanson said. "We've done our level best."
But a week before Election Day, the effort appears to be falling short.
Brown said as recently as two weeks ago that voters were not yet paying a lot of attention to his proposal to raise the sales tax and income taxes on California's highest earners. To the extent that voters are paying attention, the message they have received has not primarily been a local one.
Brown has placed himself at the center of the campaign, crisscrossing the state on its behalf, while anti-tax groups cast the measure as a product of "Sacramento politicians" in their radio and television ads.
"The governor, first of all, is in the middle of it, and you know, it's the first thing on the ballot as a state proposition," said Mark Baldassare, president of the Public Policy Institute of California. "It just seems to me the conversation in the last few weeks has not been at all about local schools and local money. It's been about the state as the intermediary."
It is a difficult position for Brown. It has been eight years since California voters last approved a statewide tax increase, a levy on millionaires for mental health services. Brown's measure includes a broader income tax increase and a sales tax, and it is flagging in public opinion polls. Among likely voters, support for Proposition 30 dropped below 50 percent in the most recent public polls.
Local measures fare far better. Nearly two-thirds of the 87 local bond and tax measures on the ballot passed in California's June election, including eight of nine local sales tax measures, according to an analysis by Michael Coleman, a municipal finance expert.
"At the local government level, voters can usually connect the direct consequences of the passage or failure of a tax measure to specific public services or facilities rather than just dollar values," Coleman said in his analysis. "This confidence and understanding in what the money will do is essential to passing a measure.
"By contrast, a source of the failure of many statewide tax measures has been voter uncertainty about what the funds will truly be used for, that the government has done reasonably the best it can with the revenues it already receives, and what the consequences are of passage or failure in terms of specific important public services and facilities."
Brown tried earlier this year to dissuade local agencies from placing their own revenue measures on the November ballot, fearing multiple measures could overwhelm voters and doom them all. That effort was largely unsuccessful. More than 230 local revenue measures will appear on ballots Nov. 6, according to Coleman.
At an event with the Democratic governor in Oakland recently, Scott Reed, executive director of PICO National Network, a group of faith-based community organizations campaigning for Proposition 30, said Brown could not rely on a local campaign exclusively to pass his initiative. The governor's resources and ability to attract statewide attention, he said, are required.
However, Reed said that in PICO's canvassing efforts, "When we're talking about schools, we're talking about schools in the neighborhood, so to that extent people are able to make it real personal."
At the Rim of the World Unified School District in Blue Jay, near Lake Arrowhead in Southern California, Proposition 30 and the potential of a multimillion-dollar budget shortfall came up last month at a public meeting.
"I don't like Proposition 30, but I think it's our only chance," Scott Markovich, the school board president, said later. "You don't want to go there in terms of what's going to happen."
Markovich, a Republican, said he is lobbying residents of his community for Proposition 30, but he worries that spending reductions threatened by Brown "don't mean anything to them anymore because they're so distrustful. They don't feel like they're being told a straight story."
Proposition 30 would avert about $5.4 billion in cuts to schools and community colleges this budget year, but it would also make revenue available for other programs and services. Whether warnings of dramatic funding cuts are made locally or statewide, said Shaun Bowler, a professor of political science at the University of California, Riverside, "the problem is too many politicians have made that argument too many times for the people to fall for it again."
Politicians for years have said "the sky's going to fall unless ," Bowler said, and after each election the public finds that "life goes on."
Skepticism has confronted Brown at campaign stops throughout the state. In Los Angeles last week, he was compelled to say his initiative is not a "shell game," while in Fresno a reporter asked if Brown could really "guarantee that it will provide new funding" for public schools.
"No doubt about it," Brown said, after which he appeared to grow exasperated and gestured to educators in the crowd.
"Look, I didn't do this for fun," Brown said. "Why are we all here? This guy, he's not here for his health. He's here because he knows classes could be canceled. So the teachers, the principals and the administrators, they all say you've got to vote for 30."
At the Fresno school district, Hanson said officials have made a conscious effort to discuss the impact of Proposition 30 "so our community could very clearly see" its implications.
Yet even for a ballot measure with significant local consequences, it is difficult to overcome statewide advertising campaigns and other "noise in the system," Hanson said.
"It's very complicated for folks."