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A SPECIAL REPORT ON TRANSPORTATION : A MATTER OF TRUST : Failure to Pass Transportation Tax Attributed to Voters' Lack of Confidence in Government

December 11, 1988|JEFFREY A. PERLMAN | Times Urban Affairs Writer

Alameda has it. Fresno has it. Even Los Angeles has it.

Does Orange County have it? Nope.

This remains the only urban county in California without a local sales tax to help pay for highway and transit projects.

The issue is credibility, residents say: Why vote for a sales tax to pay for transportation improvements when you don't believe local government will spend the money wisely?

"We have been paying taxes that supposedly were to be used for freeways, but as I drive on the freeways and roads, you wonder where the money went because it doesn't look like it's in the roads," Clifford Vails of Cypress says.

His view is widely shared, polls have found. In fact, according to The Times Orange County Poll, strong distrust of government is the primary reason Orange County residents reject a tax for transportation.

Only 40% of those surveyed in the poll, conducted by Irvine-based Mark Baldassare & Associates, have a "great deal" or "some" confidence that local government will keep county freeways and surface streets from being hopelessly congested. Sixty percent of residents, meanwhile, have "hardly any" or "no confidence at all."

"Orange County residents have little faith in their local officials' abilities to stop traffic from getting worse," Baldassare says. "Most believe that gridlock is a part of the county's future.

"People have seen a worsening transportation situation, not only in Orange County but in Southern California as a whole," Baldassare says. "And who is in charge of transportation? The government. Also, we continue to be in a climate of tax revolt and fiscal populism. And of course, the ideology with this is that you don't trust government to increase taxes and actually improve the quality of life."

One of those polled, Robert Sapiro of Huntington Beach, said: "I don't think the government spends its money wisely, and I don't trust the people who are doing it."

Responds Supervisor Harriett M. Wieder: "I don't blame (voters) for being skeptical and disbelieving. But it's a regional problem, and we're not the only part of the transportation system, and the poll results only lead me to believe that Orange Countians don't have all the facts yet. There's always got to be a scapegoat."

The poll did show that 53% of the 600 residents surveyed now favor a half-cent sales tax--the type most often politically successful elsewhere. But while this and other recent polls show that momentum is building for passage of such a tax, experts say the level of support needs to go much higher if it is to survive a hard-fought election.

D.J. Smith, a Sacramento-based transportation consultant who was involved in several of the local transportation sales tax campaigns that have won in California, says that San Diego, Sacramento, Riverside and Contra Costa counties started out with similar survey results, yet managed to turn the situation around to gain strong majorities at the polls.

Political consultants and elected officeholders now agree that the only way to win passage of such a tax measure is to listen to what people want to pay for--not try to tell them what they need-- and then package a ballot measure accordingly.

That's the lesson that Orange County officials say they did not understand in 1984, when they wrote a 1-cent countywide sales tax proposal, Proposition A, that was rejected nearly 3 to 1.

Altogether, 11 counties now have a local sales tax for transportation purposes: Alameda, Contra Costa, Fresno, Los Angeles, Riverside, Sacramento, San Benito, San Diego, San Mateo, San Francisco and Santa Clara. Voters in Contra Costa, Riverside and Sacramento counties approved their half-cent sales tax measures on Nov. 8.

But sales tax measures have been rejected in other counties, including Placer and Tulare on Nov. 8, San Bernardino in November, 1987, and Tuolumne in November, 1986.

The Baldassare poll, which has a 4% margin of error, was conducted Aug. 25-27.

The poll conducted by Smith for the Orange County Transportation Commission showed high measures of voter skepticism on several issues.

For instance, 79% agreed that "local government has done an inadequate job of meeting traffic needs," 84% agreed that "there has been too much growth in too short a period of time," and 72% said "local governments have not been able to say no to new developments."

The bottom line: Only 34% of the respondents in the OCTC's poll said that money raised from a half-cent sales tax would be spent wisely; 49% said it would be spent "inefficiently." The rest were undecided.

Another lesson public officials have learned from tax measures is that the actual wording may be critical to the outcome. According to Smith's poll for the OCTC, support increases dramatically when people are told in the ballot measure's title and accompanying explanation that a half-cent tax will cost them only $50 to $75 a year for 20 years, and that only projects "designated as important by the local communities" would be funded.

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