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County May Get a Break on Special Election Financing

June 04, 1993|ERIC BAILEY | TIMES STAFF WRITER

SACRAMENTO — Earlier this year, the price of democracy in Orange County was $231,000. That's how much it cost the county to hold a special election to fill the Garden Grove-based state Senate seat vacated when Ed Royce jumped up to Congress.

But now Orange County may get a reprieve on that bill--as well as the cost of putting on special elections for years to come. The Legislature gave final approval Thursday to legislation authored by Assemblyman Ross Johnson (R-Fullerton) requiring the state to pick up the tab for special elections, which are expected to cost $5 million statewide this year alone.

The bill, which would be retroactive to the beginning of the year, was approved by the Assembly on a 66-0 vote and now goes to the desk of Gov. Pete Wilson, who has not taken a position on it.

"I think it's just a simple matter of fairness," Johnson said. "These elections are to select people to serve in Sacramento or Washington, and it's not fair for counties to pick up those expenses. In some of the smaller counties, it's a big budget hit."

It's painful in big counties as well.

In Orange County, officials were worried earlier this year that they might have to spend more than $1 million for a flurry of midyear elections if state Sen. Marian Bergeson (R-Newport Beach) was approved as state schools chief. Those costs would have put a significant dent in the registrar's $6-million annual budget.

Bergeson's appointment, ultimately dashed by Assembly Democrats in April, was expected to prompt not only one special election for her Senate seat but possibly another if one of the county's Assembly members had been elected to replace her. "It would have been a domino effect," said Rosalyn Lever, Orange County assistant registrar of voters.

While that predicament was avoided, Orange County and other jurisdictions throughout the state are expected to face an onslaught of special elections in the years to come as lawmakers jockey for new posts because of California's new term-limits law.

In the face of such prospects, Johnson's legislation "would definitely come as a welcome relief," Lever said.

But the relief would not last forever. The bill was amended in the Senate last month so that counties would enjoy a break from special election costs only until 1999. At that time the costs again would become the responsibility of local governments.

Wilson has 12 days to either sign or veto the bill, which is an urgency measure and would become law immediately. Johnson said he plans to lobby the governor hard but could face some difficulties.

Officials in the state Finance Department are opposed to the legislation, reasoning that--given the tough budget problems facing both the state and California's counties--it's a bit like robbing Peter to pay Paul. Moreover, the responsibility of financing special elections by tradition has long been the responsibility of local governments.

Despite such dissent, the governor will decide the fate of the bill "based strictly on its merits," said Franz Wisner, a Wilson spokesman. Wisner also noted that Wilson has already agreed to have the state pick up the costs of a special election he called for this coming November.

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