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Moderate voters have scant representation in California

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About 90 percent of the men and women who hold seats in the California Legislature are either true-blue liberals or red-meat conservatives, even though polls have consistently indicated that only about half the state’s voters fall into those categories.

That’s another way of saying the state’s moderate Democrats, centrist Republicans and independent voters — half of the electorate — have only scant representation in Sacramento.

The stark contrast between the political dynamics inside the Capitol and the reality outside is one of the major impediments to timely and effective political decision making. Those inside the building engage in ideological gamesmanship. Those outside just want politicians to do their jobs, even if that requires compromise.

The division is especially evident in the endless skirmishes over the state budget, particularly on how to close the chronic gap between the spending promises that legislators and voters have enacted and the revenue the tax system can produce.

What used to be an annual battle has more recently become a perpetual one because the recession has widened the income-outgo gap. Politicians are now engaged in another of their melodramatic clashes.

Gov. Jerry Brown and other Democrats want to ask voters to extend billions of dollars in temporary tax hikes that otherwise will expire, while Republicans balk and — without being specific — say spending should be slashed instead.

A new poll by the Field Research Corp., the state’s most venerable pollster, and UC Berkeley neatly frames the gap between the state’s politicians and its voters.

In general, the poll found that voters support — albeit not by a particularly wide margin — Brown’s plan to both cut spending and extend temporary taxes, but they would oppose anything labeled as new and additional taxes.

That’s why Brown is increasingly desperate to get his plan through the Legislature — as written it would require at least four Republican votes — and onto a special-election ballot in June. He and other supporters want to call them tax extensions and not the tax increases they would become after June 30.

And while liberals might cheer voter approval of tax extensions, conservatives can take heart from voters’ strong dislike of relying primarily on revenue to close the budget gap.

The poll implies that were Brown’s plan to make the June ballot — no better than a 50-50 bet at this moment — its success or failure would hinge largely on how it’s defined to voters in what would likely be a low-turnout election.

Dan Walters’ Sacramento Bee columns on state politics are syndicated by the Scripps Howard News Service.

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