It’s been said that ignorance is bliss.
If that’s true, California voters must be an especially happy group, because their ignorance of state finances is massive and pervasive.
For years, the Public Policy Institute of California has slipped a couple of revealing questions into its periodic polling of California adults, particularly those who vote consistently.
In one a questioner lists several major areas of state government spending and asks those being polled to rank them by size. Secondly, respondents are asked to list their own budgetary priorities.
Their answers – including those from the latest poll in January – consistently show that most believe that prisons get the most money, followed by health and human services, K-12 education and higher education. Very few respondents say they don’t know.
In fact, of those four major areas – which together constitute the vast majority of state general fund spending – schools by far get the most money, well over 40 percent, while prisons are last at about 9 percent.
Answers to the second question have been just as consistent – that K-12 education is the highest priority of voters, followed by health and human services, higher education and prisons.
In fact, therefore, the budget’s relative priorities are exactly those of voters – but they are blissfully ignorant of that, believing that schools are being neglected when they’ve enjoyed a 50 percent increase in per-pupil spending since Jerry Brown returned to the governorship six years ago.
The PPIC poll also reveals that Democrats are markedly more likely to be wrong about budget reality than Republicans, with 46 percent believing that prisons get the biggest share of spending.
The situation is reminiscent of a now-common routine among late-night comedians in which passers-by are asked simple questions about history or politics that would completely stump them.
However, the effects of Californians’ ignorance about the basic facts of the state budget are not funny because they are carrying their misimpressions into the ballot box, voting on multibillion-dollar issues such as last year’s extension of higher taxes on the state’s highest-income taxpayers.
The campaigns for and against that measure, and many others, may be one reason for the pervasive ignorance. Advocates of new taxes, well aware that K-12 education is the highest priority of voters, spend millions of dollars implying that schools are being starved and that the proposed tax would benefit them.
It’s not a new ploy. Three decades ago, “schools win too” was the pledge of those promoting a state lottery and to this day, many Californians are convinced that the lottery is a major source of money for education when, in fact, its contribution to K-12 schools is minuscule.
The facts about how California spends its money are not a secret. But many, if not most, voters prefer to be blissfully ignorant, rather than take the time to educate themselves.