Measure M Foes Invoke T Word: Tax

TIMES STAFF WRITER

The opponents of Measure M, a proposed half-cent sales tax increase to pay for transportation improvements, seem to be adhering to a theory not often applied to politics--"less is more."

With the election less than three weeks away, the "No More Taxes--No on M" committee is just now beginning to raise money. They have not done any advertising or sent out any political mailers other than one fund-raising letter, and their chief campaign strategist just returned from a vacation in Europe.

They are up against a campaign that already has raised and spent more than $1 million and has seemingly limitless financial and strategic resources.

So are the anti-M forces worried?

"It's looking very positive right now," said Russ Burkett, the San Juan Capistrano slow-growth activist heading up the campaign. "There was a theory we could win the whole thing without spending a dime and really go down in history."

The No on M campaign budget won't be quite that small. Burkett predicted that the group would end up spending "less than $50,000."

By contrast, developers and builders individually are contributing sums almost that large in support of the measure, which would increase Orange County's sales tax from 6 to 6 1/2 cents for 20 years, providing $3.1 billion for freeway, street and transit projects.

The "No" campaign will try to use the enormous disparity in funds to its advantage by portraying itself as a swarm of Davids in a fight against a handful of Goliath-sized developers.

"They could put all of their people in one restaurant--maybe even one booth at Bob's Big Boy," said Burkett, just back from a trip to the Soviet Union and Finland. "Our strategy to win is working through our vast network (that) we have built up over the years."

The "network" Burkett is counting on are contributors and supporters of a curious mix of causes: slow-growth advocates from South County, Costa Mesa and Huntington Beach; members of environmentally oriented groups in Newport Beach and Laguna Beach; as well as libertarians, anti-tax Republicans and people who hate car-pool lanes.

The No on M campaign is also getting support from city council members from several cities--San Clemente, Laguna Beach, Costa Mesa, Newport Beach and Tustin, among others--even though 25 of the county's 28 city councils voted to approve the traffic improvement plan that the sales tax increase would fund.

"There's something in there (Measure M) for everyone to hate," said Bill Ward, another key figure in the campaign and an ardent foe of car-pool lanes. "We don't need to convince people a lot. We just have to tell them what it is and they'll convince themselves."

Proponents of the measure contend that it is needed to finance critical traffic improvements such as:

* An earlier completion of the Santa Ana Freeway widening project from Irvine northward;

* The addition of lanes to other freeways throughout the county;

* The rebuilding of the interchange of the Santa Ana and San Diego freeways known as the El Toro "Y";

* The construction of a 220-mile network of "super-streets" and,

* The expansion of Los Angeles-to-San Diego rail service.

The measure would create a citizens' committee to monitor spending, and it would require every city and the county to adopt growth management plans that link traffic relief with future development. Those safeguards will assure that the money--about $50 to $75 a year from the average consumer--is properly spent, proponents argue.

But what Ward, Burkett and other opponents will be telling voters loudly is that Measure M is not a "Traffic Improvement and Growth Management Plan," as its proponents claim. Instead, Measure M is, they will stress, that most loathsome of words in Republican Orange County: a tax.

In 1984, Orange County voters defeated another well-funded measure that would have raised the sales tax to pay for traffic improvements. Although public opinion surveys indicated that it might pass, the measure was defeated by nearly a 3-to-1 margin.

Measure M supporters hope that the smaller tax increase this time--a half-cent compared to a full cent in 1984, and more specific descriptions of what the money would do--will turn the tide. But Measure M opponents doubt that will happen.

"This is an anti-tax county," said Jerry Yudelson, a Garden Grove businessman and former congressional candidate who is also a leader in the "No" campaign. "There's a built-in 40 to 45% 'no' vote."

Dana Reed, an Orange County transportation commissioner and outspoken proponent of the measure, concedes that the "Yes on Measure M" forces must take their opponent quite seriously, despite that group's meager war chest.

"I don't think we can minimize them," Reed said. "You don't need money to tell people to vote no. We have to work twice as hard."

Last week, Yudelson announced the formation of a group headed by himself, Burkett, Costa Mesa City Councilwoman Sandra L. Genis and Placentia City Councilman Norman Z. Eckenrode.

The group will use cable TV and radio ads rather than mailers to get its message out.

"You won't see a mass-mail campaign," Yudelson said. "It might cost $100,000 on a mailer to reach 400,000 voters. . . . You could buy 2,000 cable commercials with that money."

Ironically, the No on M group plans to use the very argument that developers used to defeat a countywide slow-growth initiative last year.

"The message to North County is going to be that they're paying for what the south gets," Burkett said, repeating a complaint made by many North County city council members who see little in the Measure M transportation plan that would benefit them.

The same developers Burkett is fighting now used that argument in their campaign to defeat the slow-growth measure on the June, 1988, ballot. Burkett was one of the key supporters of that measure.

A different message, zeroing in on concerns about environmental damage and rampant growth, will be delivered to South County voters, Burkett said.

Not all of the anti-M forces oppose the issue from a slow-growth or anti-developer perspective.

At a meeting of the Orange County Young Republicans last week, economist George Reisman labeled the measure another attack on the taxpayer by the state and an infringement on developers' rights to do as they wish with their property.

Reisman also criticized Measure M's provision to subsidize bus fares for the elderly and the disabled, prompting an angry response from his opponent that evening, transportation Commissioner Reed, who said he was "distressed" to hear such talk at a meeting of Republicans.

"Seniors and handicapped pay taxes here--they deserve something too," Reed said.

Reisman's response was that Orange County, with such a large and affluent population, ought to consider becoming its own state if California politicians persist with the idea that "everyone who has a special problem has a right to put his hand in your pocket."

"The remedy for the traffic crisis is not to victimize taxpayers any further," Reisman said. "Socialism is now being abandoned in eastern Europe. Surely in the U.S. it ought to be possible to dismantle the sacred cows of the welfare state."

Last year, in the waning days of the slow-growth initiative campaign, Reisman wrote a newspaper editorial that Burkett said helped defeat the measure.

"He was one of our bitterest enemies last year," Burkett said.

Now he is on Burkett's side. And at the meeting of Young Republicans, it was Reisman--squaring off against Reed from the "Yes" campaign--who got the loudest applause.

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