Measure A Voting Seen as Gauge of Anti-Tax Feeling

Times Urban Affairs Writer

Capistrano Unified School District's proposed property tax increase for school construction, which failed to get the necessary two-thirds majority at the polls Tuesday, was defeated by slow-growth and anti-tax sentiments, observers said Wednesday.

Yet the fact that a 52.2% majority did vote for Measure A, the southern Orange County school district's proposal to raise $85 million over 25 years, may signal a weakening of Orange County's anti-tax fervor, some political activists said.

Supporters of a proposed half-cent countywide sales tax for transportation improvements said they were encouraged by the results of Tuesday's election, because such a sales tax requires only a majority vote and public opinion surveys rate traffic as the county's worst problem.

The election results demonstrate that "voters in Orange County are willing to have a tax increase if they're convinced that the bureaucrats won't use it for whatever little projects they have in their back pockets," said Eileen Padberg, an Irvine-based political consultant.

But Sheila Benecke, who chaired the campaign in favor of Capistrano Unified's Measure A, said Tuesday's school tax defeat indicates that voters still have a "misperception that if you have inadequate, severely impacted schools, you can discourage growth."

Measure A, which would have created a special tax district known as a Mello-Roos district, was widely viewed as a test to determine who will bear the future financial burden of school construction in the severely overcrowded district, which stretches from Laguna Niguel to San Clemente and includes much of fast-growing southern Orange County.

The final tally from Tuesday's balloting was 52.2% voting "yes" to 47.8% voting "no," according to the Orange County registrar of voters. About 20.5% of the district's 96,521 registered voters went to the polls.

School Supt. Jerome Thornsley said the district is considering year-round schools, busing and other strategies for coping with Measure A's defeat. He also said the district, whose student population of about 22,500 is projected to grow by more than a third in the next 5 years, probably will return to voters next year with a similar ballot measure.

The measure would have raised property taxes $100 a year on existing single-family homes and $60 a year on existing condominiums, apartments and mobile homes. Future single-family homes would have been taxed an extra $200 a year as part of the plan to raise $85 million over 25 years. Some opponents criticized the measure because it also would have cut by 50% the fees developers are required to pay for schools.

Thornsley blamed Measure A's defeat on voters' "no-growth" philosophy and a belief that school improvements encourage new housing construction. He also cited a belief held by some voters that only new home buyers should pay for new school facilities. "It's a narrow, selfish vision," he said. "The educational level of our citizens affects all of us."

Benecke, chairwoman of Schools for Kids, the committee that campaigned on behalf of Measure A, said her group spent more than $80,000. Campaign finance reports filed at the county registrar's office showed several large contributions from developers, including the Santa Margarita Co., Mission Viejo Co. and The Lusk Co.

Benecke said it may take a "crisis atmosphere" for the school district tax plan to gain a two-thirds majority, and such a climate was lacking in Tuesday's balloting.

Thornsley and Benecke said Wednesday that they doubt a two-thirds vote is possible for any tax measure in Orange County, where few tax increases have won voter approval. Thornsley said he will support legislation in Sacramento aimed at reducing the requirement, perhaps to a majority vote.

"The people who oppose only need to get 34%. . . . A 'no' vote is actually worth two 'yes' votes in this kind of election, and that's not equal representation," Thornsley said. "The majority's will gets frustrated by the minority."

He challenged opponents of Measure A to come up with their own ballot measure to help fund needed school improvements.

Referring to San Juan Capistrano rancher Tom Rogers and his neighbor, Russ Burkett, who campaigned against the measure, Thornsley said: "They always say 'no.' You never see them come here with an alternate plan."

Rogers of San Juan Capistrano said the measure's defeat stemmed from slow-growth sentiment and the fact that it would have reduced some developer fees by 50%, thus "letting them off the hook." He said Wednesday that he might have supported the measure if developers would have been required to pass their savings from reduced fees on to new home buyers.

School officials and developers, however, argued that new home buyers already pay taxes for schools, and improvements are needed in parts of the district where little or no new development is occurring.

Burkett said he favors splitting the sprawling district into smaller units, each of which would deal with their own financial problems related to growth. He also said that officials have been too lax in pursuing available state funds.

Both men saw Tuesday's results as a negative sign for proponents of the half-cent sales tax for transportation improvements--a measure that so far both intend to oppose. Rogers and Burkett helped lead the opposition to a similar 1-cent tax that Orange County voters rejected by a margin of more than 2-to-1 in 1984.

"If we had 2 more days to campaign, we would have defeated the school tax by 65%," Rogers boasted. He noted that opponents spent only about $1,000 and distributed campaign literature by hand, not by mail.

In March, voters in the Westminster School District soundly rejected a proposed property tax increase for schools. Only 26.5% of the city's voters favored the added $100-per-parcel tax for school improvements. Opponents there had argued that they pay enough taxes already and more money should come from the state.

But unlike the Westminster balloting, Capistrano Unified's was a so-called Mello-Roos election, which involved creation of a special assessment district. Such districts have been set up throughout the county to help finance new public facilities such as roads, libraries and police and fire service. But in Orange County, Mello-Roos districts have been created only in cases where development had not yet occurred, and only the landowners needed to approve them. As development occurs later, bonds sold by the districts are then repaid from homeowner assessments.

There have been 32 Mello-Roos voter (not landowner) elections in California since the Mello-Roos law took effect on Jan. 1, 1983, officials said. Of these, eight have been successful, and half have involved school taxes imposed in Yucaipa, Modesto, Sacramento and nearby Elk Grove.

But one Mello-Roos effort aimed at acquiring a new school site went down to defeat in North Tustin recently, according to Sarah C. Walker of the county chief administrator's office.

Still, some observers were encouraged Wednesday by Measure A's ability to attract a majority of the votes cast in the Capistrano Unified district.

"I like it," said Supervisor Don R. Roth. "The sooner we put the (countywide sales tax) on the ballot, the better."

"I think it's significant," said Padberg, the veteran political consultant. "It shows that people will vote for a tax increase if they are convinced that the money is needed and will be put to good use. It's tough in a special election like Tuesday's, but that area is the most anti-growth, anti-tax area in the county. . . . There really is a pattern there."

Padberg should know. She was co-manager of the ill-fated campaign on behalf of the 1-cent sales tax measure that was soundly defeated in 1984. Post-election surveys in 1984 showed that distrust of government's ability to spend existing revenue wisely was a key factor, as well as widespread belief that government agencies already have enough money and merely need to shift priorities.

More recent polls show that such sentiment is still prevalent and is the main obstacle faced by sales tax proponents who are considering putting the proposal on the November ballot.

ELECTION RESULTS Capistrano Unified School District Measure A--Special Tax District 69 of 69 Precincts Reporting

Votes % Yes 10,278 52.2 No 9,420 47.8

Note: Two-thirds yes vote required for approval.

Turnout: 20.5% of the district's 96,521 registered voters went to the polls.

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