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Measure R: Referendum on O.C.'s Future

THE BOTTOM LINE ON MEASURE R: The Vote on the Half-Cent Sales Tax Increase.


Seven months after Orange County's high-wire investment act hit the floor in a $1.7-billion free fall, voters will decide Tuesday on Measure R, the centerpiece of the county-crafted resolution to the worst municipal bankruptcy in U.S. history.

The half-cent sales tax increase, known as the Countywide Bankruptcy Recovery Sales and Use Tax, is the key to the multi-pronged solution crafted by county officials and advisers recruited from the West Coast's financial and legal community. It goes on the ballot in an unusual, one-issue election.

If approved by a majority of the voters, Measure R would increase the sales tax in Orange County from 7.75% to 8.25%, raising about $130 million annually for the next 10 years. The tax would cost the county's 2.6 million residents about $50 a year each, though proponents say 20% of that would be borne by tourists and other visitors.

The plan is touted as the one sure way out of the county's continuing insolvency and cavernous debt. Opponents say better solutions will be embraced once Measure R is defeated. Either way, observers throughout the county agree Tuesday will be a singular moment in the county's return to solvency.

The election "is a significant foundation for the county's future, no matter which way the vote ends up," said political consultant Harvey Englander. "It is a defining moment as to the methodology to get there. If it passes, recovery will happen faster, but Measure R's failure will be proof the voters no longer trust their leadership and elected officials in the county and the state will have to become a lot more accountable and proactive."

Opponents say the tax is headed for certain defeat.

"This will lose by 20 points," said Buck Johns, an organizer of Citizens Against the Tax Increase, the business and Republican Party group battling Measure R. "People who are going to vote have made up their minds; that is reflected in the huge numbers of absentee ballots and the pre-election polling."

The measure's proponents, who have spent lavishly and flooded the county with 2.5 million pieces of mail, offer no definitive prediction.

"I think this is going to be a close election," said Sheriff Brad Gates, who heads Citizens for Fiscal Responsibility, the main Yes on R committee. ". . . . The higher the turnout, obviously then chances of us being successful go up."

For a special election, voter interest is very high, fueled by the incredible saga of the bankruptcy, the vigorous campaigns, an unprecedented number of community forums and debates and extensive media coverage. Both sides were pressing hard in the final week of the campaign, using phone banks, rallies and mailers.

Absentee ballot applications totaled a stunning 175,729; by Friday, 125,090 had voted by mail. The number of applicants surpassed even the 1992 presidential race. Absentee voters typically comprise between 20% and 50% of the vote.

Turnout is the key to the election. Proponents believe they will lose if fewer than 40% of the county's 1.1 million registered voters take part. That's because consistent voters here--those who vote in election after election--tend to be older and more conservative, and they are generally anti-tax.

"We certainly can't win in the 30% [turnout] range," said Stu Mollrich, whose firm, Butcher, Forde & Mollrich, is coordinating the campaign for Gates' group. "And the closer to 50%, the better I like it."

That view was generally borne out in the battle over Measure M, the half-penny sales tax increase for transportation projects. In November, 1989, the measure was alone on the ballot and turnout was a woeful 22.6%. The measure lost 52.6% to 47.4%.

A year later, it was back, but in a general election that included the governor's race, and turnout ballooned to 62.1%. Measure M redux won 54.8% to 45.2%.

Polls show Measure R backers facing a tough challenge. A Times Orange County Poll taken in early June showed the tax trailing among likely voters by 50% to 37%, with 13% undecided. The poll found voters angry and mistrustful. More than half believed county leaders waste "a lot" of tax money and "pay very little or no attention" to what their constituents think.

Proponents acknowledge that residents' scorn for a government that "gambled away" $1.7 billion of taxpayers money comes up again and again when voters talk about the tax.

Part of that anger is focused on the Board of Supervisors, who voted unanimously March 28 to place the measure on the ballot. Three of the current board members were in office when longtime Treasurer-Tax Collector Robert L. Citron, who has resigned and pleaded guilty to six felony charges, mishandled the county investment pool.

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