In early returns Tuesday, California voters were supporting a statewide ballot measure that would make permanent a half-cent sales tax, with the revenue going to finance local government public safety programs.
With about a seventh of the vote counted in the special statewide election, Proposition 172 held a narrow lead of about 5 to 4.
Orange County Sheriff Brad Gates, who led a statewide campaign for the tax, gathered with other California public safety officials at the Biltmore Hotel in Los Angeles and predicted victory.
"The people are voting their confidence in public safety officers throughout the state," said Gates, who on Monday called on local residents to remember the heroic efforts last week of local firefighters before they cast their votes. "All indications we have are that we will win."
In Orange County, the proposition--if approved--is expected to reap about $144 million annually for continued funding of the Sheriff's Department, district attorney's office, municipal police and fire services.
* In the Sheriff's Department, Gates said passage would allow the James A. Musick Branch Jail in Irvine to remain open, keeping the doors locked on about 2,500 inmates. At least 200 deputies are also no longer at risk of losing their jobs.
* Dist. Atty. Michael R. Capizzi has said his department would remain at current strength and would not have to cut his staff in half, a loss that would have translated into $27.5 million in funding.
* City police and fire departments, many of which were called into service during last week's fire emergency, would collect about $7 million for their departments.
If the late-night voting pattern were to hold, local anti-tax groups who led the local opposition were no longer expecting to celebrate a rollback of the local sales tax rate in Orange County from 7.75% to 7.25%. The change would have taken effect in January.
Assemblyman Gil Ferguson (R-Newport Beach) and a band of local anti-tax groups had criticized the measure as a "fraudulent" attempt by government to swell the ranks of its bureaucracy.
Tuesday night, Carole Walters, president of the Orange Taxpayers' Assn. said the early results were too close to call.
"I think there is a long way to go," Walters said.
Elsewhere, all six other ballot measures were running behind, including Proposition 170, which would have made it easier for local school districts to pass bond issues, usually to raise funds to build new schools.
Proposition 170 was losing by more than 2 to 1.
Also Tuesday, Republicans appeared to be winning election to two state Senate vacancies in special elections.
Conservative Maurice Johannessen was the apparent victor in a runoff election in a sprawling Northern California district formerly held by state Sen. Mike Thompson (D-St. Helena). After legislative reapportionment, Thompson was elected in a neighboring district more amenable to Democratic candidates.
On the San Francisco Bay Peninsula, former U.S. Rep. Tom Campbell of Stanford was running strongly in a contest for the state Senate seat of Republican Becky Morgan of Los Altos, who resigned from the Legislature.
Campbell, a moderate who ran unsuccessfully for the U.S. Senate last year, needed to collect more than 50% of the votes in a nine-candidate field to win the seat outright in the primary balloting.
Californians voted on a total of seven measures on the statewide ballot, including Proposition 174, the voter initiative to institute a voucher plan for state aid to parents to send their children to private and parochial schools.
A number of California cities, counties and school districts also held regularly scheduled elections Tuesday, electing candidates to a variety of offices and deciding on local ballot measures.
There were four special legislative elections: three primaries and one runoff as part of the process of filling vacancies in the Senate and Assembly.
Gov. Pete Wilson supported both Proposition 170 and Proposition 172, and he campaigned extensively throughout California in the closing weeks of the campaign for the sales tax extension, usually appearing with local law enforcement and fire department officials.
The governor had to lobby fellow Republicans in the Legislature in order to win the two-thirds vote needed to get Proposition 170, the bond issue measure, on the ballot.
Wilson called the election last spring for the purpose of allowing voters to decide whether to make permanent the half-cent state sales tax levy, in effect since the summer of 1991. If a majority of voters said yes, cities and counties would receive the revenue, an estimated $1.5 billion annually, on a permanent basis.
If voters said no, California would be faced with another fiscal crisis: The sales tax would expire Jan. 1, and local governments would be deprived of that income.