THE TIMES POLL : Support Slips for O.C. Sales Tax Increase

TIMES STAFF WRITER

With two months left until Orange County voters decide the fate of Measure M, support for the hotly contested transportation sales tax is slipping and the proposal faces serious political trouble, results of a Times Orange County Poll indicate.

"The findings are not very encouraging for Measure M," pollster Mark Baldassare said. "The measure lacks a majority, and that's very difficult going into the last leg of a campaign."

Forty-five percent of Orange County voters said they would vote for Measure M if the election were held today, while 46% said they would reject the measure, and 9% remain undecided. The poll, conducted by Mark Baldassare & Associates, interviewed 486 Orange County registered voters by telephone Sept. 4 through 6 and has a margin of error of plus or minus 4.5%.

That puts the measure--which would raise the county sales tax a half cent and use the money to pay for transportation improvements--into a statistical dead heat as it enters the key weeks of the campaign.

But support for Measure M has dropped 13 points since May, a precipitous slide that observers attribute to a combination of the gulf crisis, an uncertain American economy and the recent passage of the statewide gasoline tax. All of those developments have given voters the jitters, observers said, and have hurt the chances for passage of a local sales tax.

Supervisor Roger R. Stanton, who spent months warning supporters of the tax, saying he believed that it would fail if put on the ballot this year, said last week that the poll results confirm his earlier suspicions.

"I hate to be in a position of saying I told you so, but that's just where we're going to end up on this," Stanton said. "My own estimate is that Measure M will lose by more than 10%, especially given the passage of the gas tax."

Still, despite the measure's falling popularity, the contest remains close, and both sides agree that a hard-fought campaign could tip the scales in either direction. Faced with an evenly split electorate, members of each campaign said they were preparing to gear up for 60 days of vigorous politicking.

The eyes of both camps will settle on a small pool of undecided voters. Just 9% of the voters surveyed by The Times poll said that they had yet to make up their minds, suggesting that there may be little room to maneuver between now and November.

But Dana Reed, chairman of the Orange County Transportation Commission and a Measure M supporter, said poll results should not be interpreted as a precise gauge of where voters will end up on Election Day.

"I would not agree with the characterization that all these people have made up their minds," Reed said. "A poll is only accurate as of the day it was given. That doesn't mean that those people can't still change their minds."

Bruce Nestande, a former county supervisor and another longtime supporter of Measure M, agreed.

"The election can be won, but it's going to be a very, very tough one," he said. "It'll be nip and tuck right to the end."

Indeed, even while Measure M opponents reveled in the poll findings, they were reluctant to crow too loudly, as the campaign has yet to heat up.

"I'm pleased by those findings," said Jack Mallinckrodt, a director of Drivers for Highway Safety and a leading opponent of Measure M. "We're going to be working to tell people about what Measure M really would do, and I think we will probably carry enough informed voters to win in November."

History would seem to favor opponents of the tax, as even without a Persian Gulf conflict and a new statewide gas tax, supporters must confront a conservative Orange County electorate that has been historically reluctant to endorse higher taxes. County voters defeated a one-cent tax in 1986, and turned down a half-cent measure nearly identical to the current one last November.

Proponents of the transportation tax note that the margin of defeat has grown smaller over the years and blame last year's rejection on an exceptionally low turnout in the special election. Only a simple majority is required for passage.

Opponents, however, argue that the popularity of the measure and the accompanying transportation plan have consistently been overrated by its backers and said the poll results reflect hardening opposition to it.

"People don't like the plan," said Russell Burkett, a member of Citizens Against Unfair Taxation. "What you're seeing in that poll is that people who are learning about the plan hate it."

In addition to the declining support for Measure M since May, the poll found that opposition to the proposal cuts across party and other lines. The measure lacked majority support among both Republicans and Democrats as well as among both men and women.

Moreover, the pockets of support that exist for Measure M are lodged in groups not famous for turning out in large numbers. Voters aged 18 to 34, for instance, support the tax by a margin of 53% to 41%, but young people often forgo voting. Among older voters, who are much more likely to turn out, the measure has its strongest opposition: 55% of voters age 55 and older oppose the tax, compared to only 36% in that age group who support it.

Although the poll findings spell out serious obstacles in the way of a Measure M victory this fall, supporters and opponents agree that the transportation tax's fate ultimately will depend on how seriously residents view the area's traffic problems and the plan to address it.

"If the election were held today, it would be a tossup," Reed said, "but we still have 60 days ahead of us."

MINDSETS ON MEASURE M "Measure M on the November ballot would raise the sales tax one-half cent in Orange County from6 cents to 6 1/2-cents for 20 years,w ith the funds to be used solely for transportation constru1668573551 POLITICAL AFFILIATION

Don't Yes No know Democrats 47% 44% 9% Republicans 44 47 9 Independents/others 42 51 7

AGE

Don't Yes No know 18-34 years 53% 41% 6% 35-54 44 46 10 55 and older 36 55 9

Source: Times Orange County Poll How the Poll Was Conducted

The Times Orange County poll was conducted Sept. 4 through 6 by Baldassare & Associates. The telephone survey of 486 registered voters was conducted on weekday nights using a random sample of listed and unlisted Orange County telephone numbers.

The survey included a question screening for registered voters. An equal number of men and women were interviewed. The sample was statistically weighted to reflect the actual population distribution of Orange County registered voters.

For a sample of this size, the margin of error is plus-or-minus 4.5% for the total sample. For sub-groups such as Democrats and Republicans, it would be larger.

Sampling error is just one type of error that can affect opinion polls. Results also can be affected by question wording, survey timing and other variables.

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