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Politicians Scramble After Court Setback : Jails Tax: Decision voiding Prop. A leaves leaders coveting, for their pet causes, the $330 million collected by the county.

December 21, 1991|LEONARD BERNSTEIN and ALAN ABRAHAMSON | TIMES STAFF WRITERS

Amid escalating animosity among political rivals, San Diego city and county leaders began to pick over the bones of the now dead Proposition A jails tax Friday, hoping to make a meal of the $330 million collected illegally during the past three years.

San Diego Mayor Maureen O'Connor moved to claim half the funds for the city, proposing to spend the money on a jobs program that she said would fight both the recession and crime. O'Connor said she would seek two-thirds voter approval for her idea.

But County Supervisor Susan Golding, a longtime rival of O'Connor and a candidate to succeed her next year, proposed that the county ask voters in an advisory ballot measure how they want to spend the already-gathered funds. Golding expressed certainty that citizens would continue to support spending the money on courts and jails.

"If the tax is unconstitutional, I think it would be difficult enough to use it for jails and courts, which the public already voted on, much less change the purpose for which it is collected mid-flight," Golding said of O'Connor's proposal.

The state Supreme Court Thursday struck down the half-cent sales tax established by Proposition A, ruling in a complex and technical decision that, under the provisions of Proposition 13, a two-thirds vote was required to approve the levy. Voters passed Proposition A in 1988 by a scant 50.6% majority.

In a 5-2 decision, the court said that county supervisors had tried a "purposeful circumvention" of Proposition 13's two-thirds rule by essentially controlling the San Diego County Regional Justice Facility Financing Agency that was created to spend the money.

The Board of Supervisors and the members of the agency met in special sessions Friday, but both immediately adjourned into closed meetings to discuss their legal options. Both agreed to reconvene Dec. 30, but accomplished little else.

County Counsel Lloyd Harmon said he would advise the supervisors on the prospects for a rehearing of the Supreme Court decision or a stay of the ruling at the next meeting. Golding said options for going back to the voters to seek approval of a new tax may also be debated Dec. 30.

Friday's proceedings occurred amid intensified political finger-pointing, with elected leaders attempting to shift the blame for the devastating loss, and political candidates using the decision as a forum for their views.

University of San Diego law professor Robert Simmons, an announced candidate for Golding's 3rd District supervisorial seat, called for an immediate halt to the collection of the illegal half-cent sales tax. A day earlier, Councilwoman Judy McCarty, a likely rival for that post, had proposed to charge people incarcerated in county jails a fee that would be used to operate the facilities.

City Councilman Ron Roberts, another all-but-declared candidate for O'Connor's post and a new member of the Financing Agency, called for the immediate dissolution of the panel, which Golding heads.

"It's clear that this agency has failed in its function," Roberts said in a prepared statement. "It is a $300-million blunder."

Unlike O'Connor, Roberts called for the money to be immediately rebated to taxpayers.

The Supreme Court assigned the 4th District Court of Appeal the task of determining how the tax revenue collected since Jan. 1, 1989, should be refunded to the public. Options under consideration so far include a reduction in the sales tax, an income tax credit and a property tax.

Supervisor Brian Bilbray, defending the board during its brief meeting, said, "It's kind of tough to see how certain candidates can be true and blue and faithful when times are good, but, when times get bad, they jump ship like rats off a sinking ship."

Golding also struck back at critical comments made Thursday by Municipal Judge Larry Stirling, who, as an assemblyman, carried the 1987 legislation that set up the 1988 vote on the tax increase.

Stirling said the establishment of the financing agency "was handled very poorly. It was my bill and had my name on it, and I carried it on behalf of the county. But they had very strong views of how the agency should be set up, and I had my own views."

Golding, mentioning Stirling, Roberts and O'Connor by name, said that "Larry Stirling carried the measure, authored the bill and was roundly praised for it, and accepted that praise. Now he says, 'Oh well, he knew all along there was something wrong with it.' "

In a memo, O'Connor directed City Atty. John Witt to attempt to represent the city as an interested party before the 4th District Court of Appeal in an effort to secure part of the tax revenue for her proposed jobs program.

"I am confident that the generosity of this city will provide more than a two-thirds vote necessary to create this potential boon to our economy," she wrote.

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