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DECISION 2000 / ORANGE COUNTY | O.C. MEASURES

Health Care-Backed Tobacco Plan Pulling Ahead

The initiative that gives 80% of funds to medical needs has an early lead over proposal sponsored by county.

November 08, 2000|DAVID REYES and MONTE MORIN | TIMES STAFF WRITERS

The bulk of a $30-million-a-year windfall in tobacco settlement funds appeared destined to shore up Orange County health care programs, according to early election returns today.

Measure H, which would spend 80% of the funds on health care and anti-smoking programs and 20% on jails and public safety, led by a wide margin. But voters were delivering a stinging rebuke to Measure G, the county supervisors' competing plan to spend 40% of tobacco settlement dollars on early payment of the county's bankruptcy debt.

In a campaign that befuddled more than a few voters and pitted powerful health care providers against the majority of county supervisors and the treasurer-tax collector, the two sides served up divergent plans for what will amount to $750 million in income over the next quarter century.

Measure G, drafted by county Treasurer-Tax Collector John M.W. Moorlach, would use 40% of the settlement funds to pay down the bankruptcy debt, 42% for health care and 18% for jails and public safety. Measure H, championed by county health providers, would spend 80% of the settlement on health care and the remainder on public safety.

Measure H supporters were confident of victory.

"It seems that the more precincts that are reporting, the more consistently we go up," said Michele Revelle, executive director of the Orange County Medical Assn. "It seems the voters have spoken."

But without final figures, Measure G supporters were reluctant to concede defeat.

"I still want to give it more time," Moorlach said. "At the very least, we've shown that there is strong support for debt retirement. At least we've given voters some dialogue in the discussion."

Despite efforts by both sides to boil the issue down to a short catch phrase (Measure H proponents coined the slogan "H is for Health, G is for Government") the competing measures caused no small amount of confusion.

After punching his ballot in a Costa Mesa polling place, voter Ken Neuhoff, 36, confessed, "I don't think I clearly understood the measures."

Nearby, Brendan Owens, 36, said he voted for Measure G, even though he was nagged by questions. "I wanted to know how much money we're talking about here," he said.

Still others avoided the item entirely. "I didn't know about it enough so I didn't vote on it," said Stephanie McDowell of Costa Mesa.

Orange County health care advocates turned to the initiative process after negotiations broke down with county supervisors, much as people opposed to an airport at El Toro used Measure F last March to stop a pro-airport board majority from continuing with plans for the former Marine base.

"Initially, the Board [of Supervisors] was not going to spend a dime of tobacco money on health care," Revelle said.

Armed with nearly $800,000 in campaign funds, Measure H supporters first battled county supervisors' efforts to keep the initiative off the ballot. The initiative eventually was endorsed by the majority of the county's elected representatives in Sacramento and Washington, D.C.

When supervisors lost a legal move to keep Measure H off the ballot, they instead supported Measure G, which was drafted by Treasurer-Tax Collector John M.W. Moorlach.

At stake is $30 million annually for 25 years under the national tobacco litigation settlement, with annual allotments after 2025 to be determined later.

Supervisors said that using the tobacco windfall would help the county pay off its $950-million bankruptcy debt sooner, which would free up money that could later be allocated for health needs. They also noted that the county is under a 21-year-old federal court order to reduce crowding in its jails.

Health care leaders had another view. They said the settlement with the nation's largest cigarette and tobacco companies stemmed from a lawsuit alleging that the companies were responsible for a product that caused health risks for thousands of people.

Logically, they said, settlement funds should go to help pay for health care and anti-smoking programs, not jails or debt.

Revelle said that she developed a working relationship with supervisors, but that underlying much of the discussions was the issue of trust between health care advocates and the board.

"I think it went beyond trust," she said, especially after the health leaders offered that settlement money be used to pay off the debt and also build a jail, if supervisors would transfer interest savings to health care.

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Times staff writer Jennifer Mena contributed to this report.

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