Orange County transportation officials, overwhelmingly in favor of attempting another countywide half-cent transit and highway sales tax vote this November, are meeting today to take up the touchy issue of whether to modify or simply repeat Measure M, the sales tax plan defeated last fall.
Measure M, which would have raised $3.1 billion for highway and transit projects over 20 years, was rejected by a vote of 52.6% to 47.4% after a $2.5-million-plus campaign. Most political experts blamed the defeat on the low voter turnout of 22% in last fall's election, in which Measure M was the only countywide issue on the ballot.
Backers of the ill-fated measure say they are against changing it. They cite a survey of Orange County voters conducted for the Measure M campaign committee that shows rejection of the tax proposal had nothing to do with opponents' claims that it would result mostly in construction of new, controversial car-pool lanes on existing freeways. The survey also indicated that voters generally supported it but for the fact that it would have raised taxes.
Campaign officials said the survey also indicates that Measure M might have passed if voters had known it contained growth controls.
The survey of 400 Orange County residents who voted in the Measure M election and 500 who stayed home was conducted by Los Angeles-based political consultant Arnold Steinberg in mid-December, but results were not available until Friday. Steinberg could not be reached for comment and the possible error margin was unavailable.
Although the Orange County Transportation Commission will not formally decide Monday whether to schedule a November vote, panel members say they will discuss wording of a new measure. Some cities would like to shift some money in the sales tax plan from roads to rail transit--such as monorail systems. Slow-growth advocates, meanwhile, would like to tighten growth and traffic controls in a revised ordinance, and possibly obtain support for a companion parks bond measure on the same ballot.
Dana W. Reed, a Newport Beach lawyer and the commission's public, at-large member, says he will resist any attempt to shift money that the sales tax plan would allocate to different types of projects, or any attempt by cities to weaken the growth controls, which affect city eligibility to receive sales tax proceeds.
"That would be disastrous," Reed said. "That would kill the whole thing."
Faced with staggering traffic woes, five of the commission's seven voting members said they are convinced that a November sales tax effort is critical to congestion relief. They are Commission Chairman Thomas F. Riley, Tustin Councilman Richard B. Edgar, Anaheim Councilman Irv Pickler, Brea Councilwoman Clarice A. Blamer, and Reed. Supervisors Roger R. Stanton and Harriett M. Wieder could not be reached for comment but are believed to be leaning strongly in favor of a November vote.
A final decision may not be made until June, however, because the OCTC staff has recommended at least one study session, scheduled for Feb. 15, to consider changes to Measure M.
"I don't believe anything in Measure M really needs to be changed," Reed said. "It was the low voter turnout in a special election that killed it, and the plan itself is fine. I don't know of any other commissioner who wants to change the plan."
But some members of the League of Cities, the group that represents all 29 city councils in the county, are interested in shifting some road funds to rail transit because of the current, intense interest in monorails.
Five central county cities have banded together to discuss monorail plans.
City and county officials said the impetus for such a change comes from Santa Ana Mayor Daniel H. Young, who less than a year ago was instrumental in brokering an 11th-hour redrafting of the Measure M sales tax spending plan that diverted millions of dollars from rail transit to streets and highways.
But Young said he is not eager to reopen the spending plan partly for fear of destroying the delicate political alliances that stood behind it.
Altogether, Measure M would have earmarked $1.325 billion for freeway projects, $350 million for regional streets and roads, $650 million for local streets and roads, and $775 million for transit.
Reed, Riley and other commission members said they are reluctant to change the funding formulas because, under state law, OCTC would have to go back to all the city councils and obtain approvals from a majority representing the major portion of the county's population--just to place the revised measure on the ballot.
"I don't see any changed conditions that necessitate going through the whole process again," said former county Supervisor Bruce Nestande, who chaired the ill-fated campaign in favor of Measure M last fall.
"We all need to do a better job of explaining what the benefits of Measure M are going to be," said Nestande, who is vice president of Costa Mesa-based Arnel Development Co. and a member of the California Transportation Commission. "But I think a prolonged debate in rehashing all the old issues will not be useful."
Referring to the Steinberg poll, Nestande said it would make no sense to approach voters again in November if the survey results showed that the outcome would not be different with the higher turnout expected in a general election.
"The issue of transportation and the critical nature of funding still has not been resolved and still remains and so the critical question is how do we address that. . . . We needed an analysis to determine whether or not, in a larger turnout election, the public in Orange County would vote for it. As an individual, I am convinced the data shows that it's worth taking back to the people again. Otherwise, I wouldn't want to waste my time, the county's time, and the public's time."
The survey showed that:
* 61% of the respondents who voted in the Measure M election agreed strongly or somewhat with the statement, "All new freeway improvements should include a special high-occupancy vehicle lane, such as a Diamond Lane, for buses and vehicles with two or more passengers." About 31% disagreed strongly or somewhat, with 8% undecided. Among non-voters, support for car-pool lanes was even stronger, and some voters who cast ballots against Measure M also were among those who support car-pool lanes.
* 55% of both groups identified Measure M as a traffic measure while only 2% thought of it as a growth management plan, and even among those few who bothered to vote, growth management was slightly ahead of transportation improvements as the most important factor in preserving their quality of life.
* 19% of those who voted said they were less likely to favor Measure M because of the quarter-cent earthquake relief tax that was enacted in October, and 2%--without being asked--volunteered on their own that Measure M probably lost because of concerns about a North County-South County imbalance in the benefits to be received from passage. The number of people who volunteered car-pool lanes as a reason didn't reach even 1%. The top excuse cited was that Measure M would have increased taxes.
* 41% of those who cast ballots were over 60 years old--the most conservative, anti-tax voting bloc around, and traditionally more likely to go to the polls than younger voters.
* Only 22% of those who cast ballots commute more than 30 minutes to work each day, while 37% of the non-voters face that predicament.
Still, Measure M critics such as Bill Ward of Drivers for Highway Safety said it's difficult to imagine that OCTC will "foist a failed product" on the voters again.
"The voters already said no to this," Ward said. "They just don't have any respect for the public."
Nestande, however, recalled that it took two tries each before Sacramento and Contra Costa county voters approved their respective sales tax hikes for highway and transit projects.
Drivers for Highway Safety, which opposes car-pool lanes, was one of the groups that campaigned against Measure M.
Jerry Yudelson, another Measure M opponent, now is seeking the Democratic nomination against Assemblyman Curt Pringle (R-Garden Grove). Yudelson said OCTC needs to see what happens to the state gasoline tax increase already on the June ballot before scheduling another county sales tax election.
"The biggest problem I have with it is that it locks in today's solutions for 20 years," he said. "That's very poor planning."
While a shift in spending formulas requires support from a majority of the cities and the Board of Supervisors, changes to the growth and traffic controls in the actual implementing ordinance--a separate document--do not. This leaves room for friction between pro-development forces and slow-growth activists on such issues as the composition of a residents' oversight committee to monitor compliance with Measure M. Such a committee was a key feature of the ballot measure, but its selection and duties are contained only in the implementing ordinance to be repealed today.
Santa Ana's Young said that while the oversight committee issue provides an opportunity to create a new regional planning agency, called a council of governments, he does not want it to get in the way of a November tax vote.
Repeal of the existing implementing ordinance is necessary, OCTC officials said, because it calls for a sales tax election that has already been held and for studies that are not funded because of Measure M's defeat.