In an election that shattered dreams of a streamlined freeway system in this century, Orange County voters decisively rejected a transportation sales-tax increase Tuesday.
Measure M, the half-cent sales-tax boost for traffic improvements, lost by about 14,000 votes--or 53% to 47%. It was the second time in five years that Orange County voters had rejected a sales tax-transportation measure, although this time the outcome was a lot closer.
Its supporters were disconsolate.
"You have to be disappointed. Measure M would have allowed Orange County to begin to see its way out of the congestion that's there right now," said former county supervisor Bruce Nestande, chairman of Citizens for Yes on M.
Elsewhere, voters in Laguna Niguel handily endorsed a move to become the county's 29th city.
In Irvine, anti-gay activists successfully repealed a portion of a new city ordinance that offered human-rights protections to homosexuals. Irvine's Measure N won by 52.6% to 47.4%.
In another local race that tested the strength of proponents of "traditional values," however, candidates backed by religious fundamentalists and conservatives lost by a near 2-to-1 margin in an effort to win seats on the Newport-Mesa Unified School District Board of Trustees.
And voters in Fountain Valley recalled Councilman Fred Voss, who was arrested last January for soliciting sex from an undercover officer on Harbor Boulevard.
Countywide turnout was 22%, Registrar of Voters Don Tanney said, a county record for an off-year election that topped the previous high of 13% in 1987. There was also a record use of absentee ballots--more than 34,000 compared to 10,856 in 1987.
"For an off-year election, this is an excellent turnout. Normally an election like this would be 12% but the presence of Measure M and the emphasis on absentee balloting by Measure M folks accounts for the difference," Tanney added.
Voter turnout for recent off-year elections has been averaging about 12%.
While Measure M was losing in Orange County, sales-tax increases were being approved by voters in five other counties, including San Bernardino.
"Measure M had more going for it and a wider coalition than probably you can get for any measure," said Tom Rogers, a San Juan Capistrano rancher who switched sides and backed Measure M after opposing a similar, 1-cent tax hike in 1984. "I doubt very much that there will be any possibility of putting a tax increase on the ballot in the future."
Jerry Yudelson, one of the leaders of the campaign against Measure M, said its defeat shows "you cannot take a bad plan and sell it to the voters, even with $2 million. . . . We won a classic David-versus-Goliath struggle."
The half-cent sales tax increase was the only countywide issue on Tuesday's ballot, with the election battle reflecting sharp divisions among Orange County residents about remedying traffic congestion, the county's No. 1 problem, according to public opinion surveys.
Measure M would have earmarked $1.325 billion for freeway improvements, including $550 million to widen the Santa Ana Freeway from six to 12 lanes about 15 years ahead of schedule. The fixed, 20-year plan also would have set aside $1 billion for regional and local street projects, plus $775 million for commuter rail and other transit programs, including subsidized bus fares for the elderly and handicapped.
Fearing a replay of June, 1984, when a proposed 1% sales tax increase was crushed, 70% to 30%, proponents of Measure M mounted a $2.4-million campaign that included slick, flashy mail, thousands of telephone calls, and precinct walks emphasizing that there was something for everyone in this year's measure: growth controls; a citizen's oversight committee, and a broad mix of projects to appeal to partisans of freeways, commuter trains and neighborhood thoroughfares.
Most of the campaign dollars came from developers and the construction industry, out of concern that ever-worsening traffic congestion would hurt business, lead to economic stagnation and prompt a decline in Orange County's quality of life.
The opponents, a ragtag assortment of anti-tax and slow-growth activists, were able to raise little more than $10,000, mostly from individuals, for a few thousand letters and a few hundred telephone calls. Borrowing a page from the playbook used successfully by opponents of last year's countywide slow-growth initiative, Measure M's critics tried to pit North County against South County by telling residents of each area that the other one would benefit most from the sales tax increase, which was expected to cost each Orange County resident an estimated $50 to $75 a year.