A group of county business and civic leaders agreed Thursday to hire a political consultant to direct a million-dollar campaign to bolster slipping public support for a proposed half-cent sales-tax increase to pay for traffic improvements.
Orange County voters will be asked in November to consider increasing the sales tax to 6 1/2% from 6%, but recent polls showed that support had slipped to 48% countywide, down 6 points from 54% 11 months ago.
"It's not going to be an easy campaign to win," said former Orange County Supervisor Bruce Nestande, co-chairman of the steering committee supporting the tax increase. "People will only buy off on it once they understand what their benefits are going to be, with a great deal of specificity."
With that difficulty in mind, the loosely formed organization, which includes developers, labor leaders and slow-growth advocates, decided it would hire veteran political consultant Allan Hoffenblum on Thursday to seek voter approval of a half-cent, countywide sales tax.
The Los Angeles-based Hoffenblum managed Republican Dana Rohrabacher's successful campaign for Congress last year in the 42nd Congressional District, which includes portions of northwest Orange County and Long Beach. In 1972, Hoffenblum was Los Angeles County director of then-President Richard Nixon's reelection campaign. Nestande said Hoffenblum will be paid from money still to be raised. Hoffenblum could not be reached for comment.
Nestande said that developers such as the Irvine Co. are expected to contribute, and that broad-based financial support is sought. No specific amounts of money were pledged or sought at Thursday's meeting at the Pacific Club in Irvine. Hoffenblum was hired at the meeting by the group, which hasn't decided what to name itself. Aside from Nestande, who is vice president of Arnel Development Co. and a member of the California Transportation Commission, those in attendance were Irvine Co. executives Gary Hunt and Jack Flannigan, Orange County Chamber of Commerce President Lucien Truehill, Bob Balgenorth of the Orange County Building Trades Council, Manuel Puentes from the Automobile Club of Southern California, slow-growth activist Tom Rogers of San Juan Capistrano, Santa Margarita Co. Vice President Don Moe, Industrial League of Orange County President Todd Nicholson, and Bob Beck, chairman of the Orange County Transportation Coalition.
Also attending were representatives of the William Lyon Co. and Citizens for Traffic Solutions, the anti-slow-growth organization that mounted the successful $2.5-million campaign against Measure A, last year's countywide slow-growth and traffic-control ballot initiative.
"We don't have any campaign money yet, so now we have to go out and raise it," said Nestande. He said no specific budget for a campaign was discussed, but he believes it may take $1.5 million to educate voters about the merits of the sales-tax proposal. The measure would raise $3.2 billion toward an $11.6-billion, 20-year county traffic improvement and growth management plan, with the remaining $8.4 billion coming from existing revenue sources such as city, state and federal governments.
The half-cent tax proceeds would help pay for major freeway widening projects, including additional car-pool lanes, busways, a new commuter rail service, and the streamlining of major thoroughfares with the help of signal synchronization, bus turnouts and left-turn pockets.
The ballot measure would also require the cities and the county to alleviate traffic congestion caused by new development in order to remain eligible for sales-tax proceeds. A committee of Orange County residents would monitor the collection and spending .
No organized opposition to the campaign has emerged, although critics of car-pool lanes say they will distribute "educational" literature pointing out how the sales tax plan will lead to more of the special lanes.
Rogers, the county's most prominent slow-growth advocate, attended Thursday's session even though his chief political nemesis, Newport Beach lawyer John Simon, was also there. Rogers had previously sworn not to participate in any campaign involving Simon, who led the campaign to defeat last year's slow-growth initiative.
Rogers opposed a 1-cent sales tax for transportation projects in June, 1984. The 1-cent measure was defeated, 70% to 30%.
Rogers said Thursday that he is not yet firmly committed to support the sales tax campaign that Hoffenblum will now manage. He said he is awaiting the final language of a sales-tax implementation ordinance that county transportation commissioners will consider again on Monday.