The prospect of a tax increase weighed against the county's burgeoning traffic problems has divided Orange County Republicans over Measure M on Tuesday's ballot.
The conservative Orange County Republican Assembly, after listening to experts explain the measure's half-cent sales tax increase to raise $3.1 billion in traffic improvements, overwhelmingly voted it down, 34 to 2.
The Republican Party's Lincoln Club considered the same proposal and donated $25,000 to the campaign for passage of the measure on the Nov. 7 ballot.
The county's Republican Central Committee has decided not to take a position. But the all-Republican Board of Supervisors is unanimous in its support. And in Sacramento, only one of the county's legislators has come out against the measure, although some are taking no position.
"I'm really not sure about it," said Assemblyman Nolan Frizzelle (R-Fountain Valley). "I've had to tell people frankly, I'm ambivalent. I really am not prepared to say it's all good or all bad."
Supporters of Measure M say they have not put any pressure on legislators to silence any possible opposition. But leaders of the campaign against the measure said they think politics is involved.
"It's real obvious why they're not taking a position," said Jerry Yudelson, a leader of the anti-M campaign. "When you're looking at $2 million in developer contributions (for the M campaign) nobody who needs that money (source) for their (future) elections is going to go against it."
Still, the varied political opinions are not expected to have any impact on Measure M's success or failure at the polls, say proponents of the measure. Voters look to their party for advice on candidates, but not to a significant degree on ballot measures, said Bruce Nestande, campaign chairman for Measure M.
"On a ballot measure or public policy such as this the (party's position) means very little," he said. "The voter out there is pretty independent."
What the spectrum of opinions does demonstrate, say GOP leaders, is that Orange County's Republican Party is not a monolith. It also reveals the party's two major factions: the business community and the philosophical conservatives.
"I think it highlights the fact that there are different stripes within the Republican Party," said Harvey Englander, a Newport Beach political consultant. "There's a difference between the pragmatic Republicans and the philosophical Republicans."
Party members usually agree on their choices for major state or national offices, he said. But on local issues, there are several camps.
"The reality is that there are active and good Republicans on both sides," said Orange County Republican Chairman Thomas Fuentes. "We view it as a totally nonpartisan kind of issue."
Measure M is intended to raise the $3.1 billion over the next 20 years to widen freeways, create "super streets," explore a public train system and improve congested intersections. To satisfy those who distrust government, the measure also has provisions that regulate development and establish a citizens' committee to oversee the distribution of the tax revenue.
On one side of the county's Republican Party are business leaders--including developers--who fear that the economy and their ability sell products or houses will suffer if traffic does not improve. As a result, the bulk of about $1.8 million raised for the campaign was donated by developers.
On the other hand, some of Orange County's most conservative leaders seem to be reading President Bush's lips.
In explaining its rejection of the measure, the Republican Assembly said "members are skeptical of tax increases in general. . . . The current transportation mess is not due to a lack of funds, but rather to a lack of will and competence on the part of government officials."
The Democratic Party, meanwhile, has strongly endorsed the measure. Party leaders are rolling up their sleeves to work telephone banks, raise money and get out the vote.
Orange County Democratic Party Chairman Mike Balmages agreed with his counterpart, Fuentes, that Measure M is a nonpartisan issue. But, he said, "I don't see anything inappropriate about the parties taking positions on the most important issue in Orange County this election. I think it's a cop-out by the Republicans."
Several of Orange County's conservative legislators who have declined to state a position on the measure include Assemblymen Ross Johnson (R-La Havra), Curt Pringle (R-Garden Grove) and Frizzelle.
In Orange County's Assembly delegation, only Gil Ferguson (R-Newport Beach) has spoken publicly in favor of the measure. Assemblyman Dennis Brown (R-Los Alamitos) is the only legislator from Orange County to publicly oppose the measure.
"I'm sure there will be people who will attack me because I'm supporting the tax," said Ferguson, who announced Wednesday that he will run for the seat of retiring state Sen. William R. Campbell (R-Hacienda Heights) next spring. "But if they knew the facts, they'd support it too. They're just sticking their head in the sand."
Said Pringle: "There are certain things that your position is very valuable on and there's other things where I don't think it's important." He added, however, "I personally have a lot of problems with (Measure M). I probably will be voting no."
The two Orange County senators who are competing in the Republican primary for the lieutenant governor's seat--John Seymour (R-Anaheim) and Marian Bergeson (R-Newport Beach)--both said they support the measure. Both also supported Measure A, the 1984 proposal that called for a one-cent sales tax to pay for new roads that was overwhelmingly defeated at the polls.
"While no one likes advocating a tax, the realities are that without additional funding for transportation we're going to continue to sit in gridlock," Bergeson said.
Seymour noted: "Any time you take a position in support of a tax it's unpopular. On the other hand, I don't look at my job here as running a popularity contest. My job is to take positions and make stands. I don't mind being counted on this."