Orange County's legislative delegation has abandoned its plan to ask voters to divert Measure M transportation tax dollars in favor of a county proposal to rely on legislation alone to raid other Orange County Transportation Authority revenues for the county's recovery effort, officials said Tuesday.
Assemblyman Curt Pringle (R- Garden Grove) said the delegation plans to introduce a bill as early as next week that would shift as much as $70 million a year from OCTA to the county treasury.
The bill would focus on a quarter-cent sales tax currently devoted to subsidizing OCTA's bus services, but would order the OCTA to take revenues from elsewhere in its budget--probably from Measure M funds being set aside for a future light-rail system--to support the buses.
This plan would allow the county to use Measure M money without putting the issue to a popular vote.
"We think it accomplishes the same thing, and we think it can be done quicker this way," Pringle said Tuesday. "It's just a way of expediting the process."
Since Orange County's bankruptcy filing Dec. 6, many people both inside and outside government have looked longingly at $340 million in Measure M money originally intended to build an urban light-rail system.
But Measure M is geared for specific transportation projects, and governed by the OCTA board as well as a special oversight committee, so legal and financial experts worried that there were too many hurdles to jump before Measure M money could be used to plug the gaping hole in county coffers.
Now, with state lawmakers and county consultants focused on a shorter, more direct route to OCTA funds, the money seems more at risk than ever.
OCTA Chief Executive Stan Oftelie said Tuesday that he has yet to see a specific legislative proposal, either from the county or its Sacramento delegation, but that his agency will fight any attempt to take its revenues. Oftelie suggested, however, that OCTA could use the $340 million to purchase John Wayne Airport from the county.
"Very clearly, the idea of just giving the county money is not very attractive," Oftelie said. "If they want the support of the OCTA board, they'll have to look at giving assets, not just taking revenue."
Oftelie also worried that the plan to take non-Measure M sales-tax money would decimate the county's bus system. "It seems like it damages the 50,000 people who ride the buses every day," he said. "It's basically balancing the bankruptcy on their backs."
Pringle, however, said the bill being drafted this week will include a requirement that OCTA transfer funds from other projects to support the buses so there would be minimal impact on bus service to the public.
Chris Varelas of Salomon Bros., the county's financial adviser, said Tuesday that state lawmakers' support of the OCTA raid would speed the county's own effort at crafting recovery legislation, but that it would not provide enough money to pay the county's debts.
In addition to OCTA's money, Varelas has suggested diverting sales-tax revenue from the county's 31 cities, and property taxes from several of its largest special districts.
Salomon Bros. analysts are meeting this week with representatives of various water, sanitation and other districts to determine how much money is available, and are scheduled to present a detailed recovery proposal to the Board of Supervisors Tuesday.
Pringle said Tuesday that the delegation's bill about OCTA money probably also will include the threat of a state trustee if the county doesn't implement a plan to replay its debts by a date certain.
In other bankruptcy-related developments Tuesday, a group of five Orange County lawmakers wrote to Assembly Speaker Doris Allen (R-Cypress), asking her to postpone Thursday's meeting of a special legislative committee probing the county's financial crisis.
The hearing was scheduled last month and concerns 13 bills regarding local government investment practices. In their letter to Allen, lawmakers complained that the hearing conflicts with congressional hearings on the same topics, and that it would distract from the pressing matter of the county's recovery.
"We are greatly concerned that attention is being diverted away from the most crucial and timely task before us--addressing the present crisis in Orange County," states the letter signed by Pringle and his Assembly colleagues, Marilyn Brewer (R-Newport Beach), Mickey Conroy (R-Orange), Jim Morrissey (R-Anaheim) and Bill Morrow (R-Oceanside).
"Both staff time and members must remain focused on the proposals which move the county beyond bankruptcy if it is to be accomplished this year, as we believe it should."
Mike MeCey, a spokesman for Allen, declined to comment on the letter because his boss was out of town and had not had a chance to review it.