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THE TIMES ORANGE COUNTY POLL : Measure R Still Falling Well Short of Majority : Survey of both all voters and likely voters shows tax increase in trouble. Undecideds could make difference.

June 11, 1995|REBECCA TROUNSON and PETER M. WARREN | TIMES STAFF WRITERS

With little more than two weeks to go before a crucial election, support among Orange County voters for a tax proposal aimed at yanking the county out of its bankruptcy crisis falls short of a majority, according to a new Times Orange County Poll.

Voters are divided on the proposed half-cent sales tax increase, with opponents outnumbering supporters by 45% to 40%, the poll shows. The contest is still fluid, however; 15% of those surveyed are undecided on the levy, which will go before the voters in a special election on June 27.

For those leading the campaign to pass the tax increase, known as Measure R, the poll contained another drop of bitter news: The gap is wider among those considered most likely to vote. Of likely voters, 50% say they oppose the tax hike, 37% are in favor and 13% have yet to make up their minds.

"I think it's very much an uphill battle," acknowledged Paul S. Nussbaum, top adviser to County Chief Executive Officer William J. Popejoy. Popejoy, the architect of the county's bankruptcy recovery plan, has been the top advocate of Measure R, persuading the Board of Supervisors in March to place the tax increase before the voters.

"As has been said from the very beginning, this issue is difficult and obviously very complicated," said Board Chairman Gaddi H. Vasquez, who has said he will vote for the tax. "It has to do, in the long term, with our ability to build the facilities and structures that are so important to our quality of life in Orange County. That's what's in jeopardy here."

Measure R would raise the sales tax from 7.75% to 8.25%--the same as in Los Angeles County--for 10 years. It would raise $130 million annually, against which the county could borrow to help bail itself out of the largest municipal bankruptcy in U.S. history.

Supporters, who include three of the five county supervisors and other top county officials, say passage of the tax hike is necessary to maintain health and safety services and repay nearly $2 billion in debts.

Opponents, including Supervisor Jim Silva, contend that county leaders did not exhaust other alternatives before turning to the sales tax increase. Supervisor Roger R. Stanton has yet to announce his position on Measure R.

Still, the new poll suggests that the Yes on R campaign, aided by a barrage of mailers and vocal support from Popejoy and Sheriff Brad Gates, has gained some ground in the past two months.

In April, soon after the Board of Supervisors decided to place the tax hike on the ballot, 57% of those surveyed in a Times Orange County Poll said they would vote against the measure, compared to 45% today.

But most of those former opponents appear now to be fence-sitters, not supporters of Measure R--at least not yet. The number of undecided voters has nearly doubled during the period, from 7% in April to 15% today. The percentage who say they will vote for the tax hike, meanwhile, is up only slightly, from 36% two months ago to 40% now.

Both polls were conducted by Mark Baldassare and Associates. The current poll was conducted June 2-5. The random telephone survey questioned 1,002 registered voters and has a margin of error of plus or minus 3% for the total, and plus or minus 5% for the sample of 397 likely voters.

Supervisor William G. Steiner, who is supporting the measure, said he takes heart from the poll's high percentage of undecided voters, saying he hopes some may yet be induced to back the tax.

"With this increased number of undecided voters, the need to educate them to make an informed choice is even more important than before," Steiner said. "It shows that [the tax increase] still has a chance."

But the poll also found a deep undercurrent of alienation and distrust of county government among those opposed to the so-called bankruptcy recovery tax. Responses to the poll suggest that for many people, a No vote on the tax proposal is closely linked to a low regard for county leaders and concern that money already given to the county in taxes is being squandered.

"The taxpayer is always standing in the wings and we're supposed to take it and take it," said Harry Smissen, 61, of Laguna Niguel, who plans to vote No. "I'm just not going to do it this time. . . . It just sticks in my craw."

Smissen, an inventory manager for a company that builds telephone systems, said he might be less negative about the tax if the supervisors in office at the time of the bankruptcy had resigned.

But unless those three--Vasquez, Stanton and Steiner--step down, Smissen said, "I don't think we should stand for this tax. We've stood for enough."

Nussbaum said he believes that the outrage Orange County residents feel over the financial debacle may actually be increasing, making passage of the sales tax an even greater challenge than before. "I think the anger factor may contribute to some people not even voting, essentially abdicating their responsibility," he said.

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