By Wyatt Buchanan
SACRAMENTO — Californians are in their most optimistic mood about the direction of the state and the economy since just prior to the economic collapse six years ago, according to a statewide survey by the Public Policy Institute of California.
Gov. Jerry Brown also received the highest approval rating since he took office two years ago and more than two-thirds of those surveyed said they favor the governor’s budget plan released this month.
The results show state residents believe California has gone through the worst of the economic downturn and are hopeful about what the state government could accomplish this year, said Mark Baldassare, president and CEO of the public policy institute.
“It’s really a significant change in the mood of Californians going into this new year in the wake of the election and some generally good fiscal and economic news … coming out of our state,” he said. “It really is a sense of optimism we haven’t seen for several years.”
Still, Baldassare said, “It’s really at the early stages and what I would describe as the fragile stages.”
According to the poll, 51 percent of those surveyed said California is headed in the right direction, the highest number since January 2007, when 55 percent of those surveyed said that.
In addition, 49 percent said they expect good economic times in the coming year, the highest numbers since 50 percent said that, which also was in January 2007.
A large number of people surveyed — 69 percent, including 51 percent of Republicans — said they approved of Brown’s budget plan, though there was some division in whether lawmakers should focus on paying off debt or restoring social service cuts. And for the first time since coming to office in 2011, Brown’s approval rating is above majority support at 51 percent.
What may be more telling about how Californians see their chief executive is that Brown’s disapproval rating is at 28 percent, while 21 percent of those surveyed had no opinion.
“The fact that he doesn’t have a large base of people who are unhappy with his performance — I think the gap is very telling,” Baldassare said.
Even the Legislature has improving numbers, though not as positive as the governor. Forty-one percent of those surveyed approved of the Legislature’s job performance, while 42 percent disapproved. That is a large swing from the past few years, when lawmakers’ approval dropped into the single digits.
Stephen Levy, director and senior economist at the Center for Continuing Study of the California Economy in Palo Alto, said the survey respondents are right to feel that the state is headed in a positive direction.
“We are recovering, but not recovered,” Levy said.
He noted the sharp drop in the U.S. consumer confidence index reported this week and said California’s economy should do better than the United States as a whole over the next year.
“There really is a story in contrast of people in California feeling more optimistic and people across the country feeling less optimistic,” Levy said.
Decisions by Congress and potential economic problems abroad could slow the pace of California’s recovery, but won’t derail it, he said, and he expects the unemployment rate to be the last economic statistic to return to pre-recession levels.
The results are based on a survey of 1,704 California adult residents taken between Jan. 15 and Jan. 22. The margin of error is plus or minus 3.5 percentage points.
Other findings from the survey
* On the Democrats’ supermajority in the Legislature, 40 percent said it is a good thing and 27 percent said it is a bad thing. Twenty-nine percent said it makes no difference.
* 75 percent of those surveyed favor Brown’s proposal to direct additional school funding to K-12 schools with English learners and low- income students.
* On a national assault weapons ban, 65 percent of those surveyed support that while 32 percent oppose it.
* On immigration, 63 percent said immigrants to California are a benefit to the state, while 31 percent said they are a burden. For illegal immigrants who have lived and worked in the U.S. at least two years, 76 percent said they should be given a chance to keep their jobs while 21 percent said they should be deported.
— Reach Wyatt Buchanan at [email protected]