Times Orange County Poll : O.C. Transportation Tax Increase a Tossup

Times Urban Affairs Writer

On the eve of a crucial vote to place a proposed half-cent sales tax increase for transportation projects on the November ballot, The Times Orange County Poll shows local voters almost evenly divided, with support slipping.

Asked how they would vote on a ballot measure to raise the local sales tax from 6% to 6 1/2%, 48% of the respondents said they would favor it, 46% opposed it and 6% were unsure. Eleven months ago, The Times Orange County Poll found 54% in favor of the tax increase, which is expected to cost consumers about $50 to $75 per year.

The Times Orange County Poll, conducted by Irvine-based Mark Baldassare & Associates, involved a random-sample telephone survey of 672 registered voters in Orange County from June 28 to July 1. The margin of error is 4%.

'Approval in Question'

"The measure's chance of getting the majority approval it needs to pass in November is in question," Baldassare said Saturday. "I think that as we get closer to an election the more real it becomes. People realize that this is not an abstract concept, and we see some backing off." County residents' lack of support for the half-cent sales tax proposal "contrasts sharply with their opinions of the county's traffic situation," Baldassare said.

"A stunning 66% are highly unsatisfied with local traffic and transportation conditions, and only 8% are very satisfied," Baldassare said. Another quarter say they are somewhat satisfied with this aspect of their life in their community."

Baldassare said this follows the pattern seen in 1984, when Proposition A, a 1-cent sales tax increase for transportation projects, was defeated 70% to 30% although several pre-election opinion surveys showed majority support for it. The ballot measure, if approved, would have added 1 cent to the retail sales tax in Orange County for 15 years, making it 7 cents on the dollar.

"Support for the 6 1/2% sales tax does increase as perceptions of local traffic become more negative," Baldassare added. "But even among those who say they are not at all satisfied with traffic and transportation conditions in their local community, only a mere 51% majority favors the ballot measure."

The Orange County Transportation Commission is expected to vote Monday to call a Nov. 7 special election on the sales-tax question, partly to avoid having the county tax measure appear on the same ballot in June with Gov. George Deukmejian's proposed statewide gasoline tax increase.

The proposed county tax would raise $3.1 billion for an $11.5 billion, 20-year traffic improvement and growth management plan, with the remaining $8.4 billion coming from other sources, including the state and federal governments.

Without the sales-tax increase, experts say, the county faces a $14-billion shortfall over the next 20 years in revenue needed to pay for various projects including freeway widening, a countywide commuter rail system, "super streets" and other improvements designed to reduce congestion.

Some of the poll respondents said Saturday that they didn't know what the proposed tax increase would pay for, and wouldn't vote for it unless they did.

"I believe there's too much mismanagement with the current funds, so there's no sense in forcing more funds into the system," said Bob Richardson of Santa Ana. "They'd have to prove to me that it's going to truly improve traffic conditions in Orange County. We could spend all this money and still be 20 years behind in solving the traffic mess. We have to slow down the economy, I guess."

"I think I already pay enough sales tax," said Noreen Weatherford of Westminster. "I don't know that spending this money would make any difference. I don't think anything will stop the traffic mess."

However, Weatherford said she might change her opinion if she knew what projects would be funded with additional tax money. She said she was unaware that county transportation officials plan to use some of the money for new roads and commuter trains, for example.

Support for the tax increase, meanwhile, is clearly built on drivers' frustrations.

"Have you ever taken the (Costa Mesa) 55 Freeway in the morning?" asked tax-measure supporter Roland Bryant of Garden Grove. "It's backed up from here to God-knows-where. It's hard on your truck, hard on your back, and you're basically screwed."

"We need it to be able to ease the transportation system," added Newport Beach resident Michael Gorfain, who commutes daily to Los Angeles. "It will provide some needed improvements, such as expansion of the freeways and the bus and car-pool lanes."

The latest Times Orange County Poll shows that the half-cent sales-tax increase receives its strongest support from south county voters, where it leads by 54% to 38%. North of the Costa Mesa Freeway, however, the measure is rejected by a 45% to 49% margin. Similarly, those with jobs in the south county or outside the county support the measure, while those working in the north county do not. Among those people who are not in the work force, Baldassare said, only 37% favor the tax.

By income, the poll shows that only residents with incomes above $60,000 a year give the proposed tax increase majority support. The measure also holds a slight majority among Democrats and non-GOP voters, Baldassare said. But among Republicans, more oppose the tax increase than favor it.

"One of the most significant things we found in our poll is north county versus south county," Baldassare said. "It suggests that north county residents see less direct benefit from the tax than do south county residents. . . . South county residents have new freeways on their minds and they are more desperate."

This is not unlike the split that emerged between north and south county in the battle over last year's unsuccessful slow-growth ballot initiative, which carried in the south but failed in the more populated north.

"The north-south issue," said Baldassare, "is going to be one of the most fascinating in this campaign."

The north-south split was characterized more as a cities-versus-county battle during negotiations that have led to Monday's anticipated action by the Orange County Transportation Commission.

The League of Cities, representing mayors, council members and city managers, was able to shift some of the planned spending under the sales tax proposal from transit to local and regional street projects.

Still, Monday's anticipated decision by the commission comes after 18 months of mostly successful wrangling among divergent political factions which include developers, city officials, environmentalists and slow-growth advocates such as San Juan Capistrano rancher Tom Rogers, a key opponent of the unsuccessful June, 1984, 1-cent sales tax measure.

Apparently won over this time, Rogers said Friday:

"It looks like we got what we had asked for. There's nobody more anti-tax in Orange County than this ol' cowboy, but I've looked at the lack of transportation facilities we have and my own use of the freeways, and I can see that this (tax) investment will end up saving me money (in reduced delays). I'd like everyone to see it that way. It's an economic savings."

The last remaining stumbling block to widespread acceptance of a November election was the formation of an independent committee--insisted upon by Rogers and others--which would oversee implementation of the sales-tax plan, officials said.

Even as late as Thursday, the League of Cities was trying to limit the powers of that committee. But county officials said the only major departure from Rogers' proposals was that the committee would not be able to control actual disbursement of the money.

Interviews with several commission members indicated that they favor calling a Nov. 7 election to avoid having the measure on the June, 1990, ballot with other tax increases, especially Gov. George Deukmejian's proposed nickel-a-gallon statewide gasoline tax increase.

"We certainly don't want to be in competition with a state gasoline tax," commission Chairman Thomas F. Riley said Friday. "Having both (measures) might be confusing to the public."

Without the extra $3.1 billion that would be raised by the proposed sales tax increase, officials say, there will be only enough money to build three planned tollways in eastern and southern Orange County, complete 80% of the $1.5-billion Santa Ana Freeway widening project and 60% of planned local street projects, and to maintain existing transit service at current ridership levels.

None of the revenue from the proposed half-cent sales tax would go for the three planned tollways.

Other concessions to the 1984 opponents include strict growth regulations that county officials say will prevent use of the tax money for projects that primarily benefit developers instead of relieving current congestion. Also, the plan gives the independent committee authority to conduct public hearings and block any changes in the spending plan.

In addition, there is a tacit but unwritten understanding between sales tax proponents and environmentalists that proponents also will support a bond measure in June for purchase of additional parklands.

Baldassare acknowledged Saturday that some surveys conducted by other firms have shown support for the proposed sales tax as high as 67%, as recently as March.

"However, we know both from previous polls in Orange County and from campaigns involving ballot initiatives in California that voter sentiment can shift very dramatically, in a very short period of time," Baldassare said. "We're in a very volatile period."

The Times Orange County Poll sales tax ballot measure poll was conducted June 28 to July 1 by Mark Baldassare and Associates. The telephone survey of 672 Orange County registered voters used a random sample of listed and unlisted telephone numbers. The margin of error for a sample of this size is +/- 4 percent. The margin of error for subgroups, such as North and South County residents, would be larger.

THE TIMES ORANGE COUNTY POLL

Local Sales Tax

If a vote were held today, would you vote yes or no on a ballot measure to raise the local sales tax from 6 percent to 6 1/2 percent for Orange County transportation projects?

Answer Percentage Yes 48 No 46 Don't Know 6

Voter Trends Over Time

Yes No Don't Know July,1989 48% 46% 6% August,1988 54 41 5 11-month change -6 +5 +1

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