Californians are more optimistic than they've been in six years, with nearly half of registered voters saying that the Golden State is moving in the right direction, according to a Field Poll released Thursday. And their feelings about the future parallel a surge in their enthusiasm for Gov. Jerry Brown.
The 48 percent of voters who think the state is on the right track is four times as many who did on the eve of Brown's election in September 2010. Forty-two percent say the state is on the wrong track, but that's a far cry from the 81 percent who felt that way just before Brown's election.
In interviews, poll respondents pointed out that hiring is up, housing prices are rising and fewer homes are being foreclosed. In addition, Brown last month submitted a balanced budget, while even state legislators appear to be getting their act together, the respondents said.
"It's getting better slowly, but it's getting better," said Democrat Manuel Martinez, a 47-year old bus driver from Campbell. "Before, it was doom and gloom. People were losing their homes, weren't able to get loans. ... We're never going to be like the dot.com era, but at least we're surviving and not as many people are going hungry anymore."
The last time Californians felt as good as they do was in March 2007, when 52 percent were hopeful about California's future. That was several months after Gov. Arnold Schwarzenegger's re-election -- and when a flood of cash put the state's budget in the black, if only temporarily.
After voters in November approved Proposition 30, Brown's tax-hike measure, the governor had the breathing room to present a balanced budget in January -- without many of the drastic cuts that his fellow Democrats have had to make in recent years. Since then, however, Brown has sounded a note of caution and frugality, warning Democrats to avoid the kind of spending binge that might put the state back in the red.
Brown's job approval ratings jumped to 57 percent -- up from 46 percent just before the November election. It's the highest standing Brown has had in his third term as governor, but not as high as his peak in popularity. In March 1976, during his first term, he had 69 percent job approval marks. Since May 1979, however, Brown hadn't pierced the 50 percent barrier in 19 Field Poll surveys.
In the Field's latest survey, 834 registered voters were polled by telephone from Feb. 5-17. The poll has a margin of error of plus or minus 3.5 percentage points.
Those surveyed held contradictory views about Brown. Broad majorities agreed that he could be "trusted to do what is right," is the "right governor for the problems facing California" and "deserves credit for turning around the state's finances."
But almost equally broad majorities agreed that Brown "advocates too many big government projects that the state cannot afford right now" and "favors tax policies that are hurting California's economy." Forty-seven percent believe he "favors organized labor too much."
Trina Asbell, a 43-year old Republican from Danville, said that she's not so sure the state is on an upswing: "I don't think California is doing the best -- financially, I don't know it I'm a big supporter of where our funds are going."
Still, she gave Brown credit for being the adult in the room.
"I think there's value in somebody with tenure and experience," said Asbell, owner of a finished-carpentry business. "He seems to be keeping his nose down and doing what he should be doing. And I don't see the bad activity on his part that I do in other people in power."
Most voters -- 55 percent to 39 percent -- appear satisfied that Democrats now hold two-thirds majorities in the Senate and Assembly, giving them the power to raise taxes and place initiatives on the ballot without any Republican support. Most Democrats (76 percent) say that's a good thing, while 86 percent of Republicans say it's a bad thing.
Sixty-nine percent of voters with no party affiliation viewed the Democrats' supermajority favorably. And amazingly, 12 percent of Republicans did.
"The no-party voters might be thinking it may be better than gridlock, that it enables the state to move forward," said Mark DiCamillo, director of the Field Poll. "We'll see what the perception is after Democrats do a few things."
Barely one third -- 36 percent -- approves of the job the Legislature is doing, but that represents a huge gain from September 2010, when only 10 percent of voters viewed the lawmaking body favorably.