An Assembly subcommittee on Wednesday blocked a bill that would allow Orange County residents to vote on a proposed half-cent sales tax increase for a new jail and court facilities, prompting an outcry from local officials who had counted on the measure's passage by next week's deadline.
The troubled bill, sponsored by state Sen. Marian Bergeson (R-Newport Beach), already has dodged a number of deadly legislative bullets and was thought to be headed for final approval before lawmakers adjourn for the year on Sept. 15.
But on Wednesday, members of an Assembly Ways and Means subcommittee unexpectedly ambushed the bill and decided to keep it bottled up indefinitely, contending that the measure was flawed. Committee chairman Mike Roos (D-Los Angeles) and others said Wednesday that the measure appeared to be an effort to circumvent Proposition 13, which specifically requires a two-thirds vote to impose any new taxes. The Bergeson measure, that had been expected to go before voters in June, 1990, would require only a majority vote to impose the added half-cent tax.
There appeared to be some effort late Wednesday to revive the measure by amending it to a similar bill in the state Senate. But the committee's action, nonetheless, caught Bergeson and Orange County officials by surprise and raised doubts about their ability to find the $121 million in seed money needed to build a $700-million jail in Gypsum Canyon, east of Anaheim Hills.
"I would like to give you some flip answer like 'It's back to the drawing board,' but I'm too shocked," said Board of Supervisors Chairman Thomas F. Riley in Orange County, moments after he learned of the action in Sacramento.
"We have to find a new jail somewhere and finance it someway, and we all accepted the fact that this was practically a done deal," Riley said. "We're trying to react now to what has happened. I know we're going to have to come up with some funding mechanism if this doesn't work.
"We're all hoping that a miracle can happen up there and something would come forward," Riley said, adding that being forced to find another way to pay for the jail would "open up pretty emotional issues" on the board.
Sheriff-Coroner Brad Gates has said that the measure is desperately needed because cramped jail space forces him to turn away or prematurely release more than 50,000 criminals a year. The proposed tax hike, he argues, would cost the average Orange County family $50 to $75 a year, and much of the money would come from tourists flocking to Disneyland and other local points of interest.
Gates said Wednesday that he was "frustrated" by the subcommittee's action and stressed that the sales tax money was needed not only for jail space but for a new juvenile hall and added courtrooms.
"It's frustrating and hard for me to understand why they would not want to let it out and let our voters have a chance to say yes or no," Gates said in a telephone interview. "I don't really see a risk to anybody else if that bill comes out. It goes to our voters . . . and we really don't impact anybody else."
Asked after the hearing what the subcommittee's action means, Bergeson replied: "It means that there's no jail."
Yet despite the apparent finality of the committee's actions on Wednesday, word began circulating by late afternoon that Bergeson was working on a deal to take her jail tax bill out of the Assembly for now and have it amended to a similar measure winding its way through the Senate.
Orange County lobbyist Dennis E. Carpenter, a former state senator from Newport Beach, said late Wednesday that there is still hope for the jail-tax bill.
"Dead? Heck no," Carpenter said when asked if the measure was lost.
Yet any effort to revive the measure in the Senate would still have to be approved by the Assembly. And chances are, legislative aides indicated, that any reconstituted Orange County measure would be sent directly back to the hostile Ways and Means subcommittee for more of the same treatment.
Roos predicted after Wednesday's hearing that the Bergeson measure would languish for the remainder of the session, which ends in two weeks.
That, in turn, would foil plans by Bergeson and Orange County officials to have Gov. George Deukmejian sign the measure into law in time to put the sales-tax increase on the June, 1990, ballot.
"I would say that . . . there is a high probability that you won't see any action until January," Roos said.