Deukmejian’s Legacy Is Seen in O.C.'s Roads
The legacy of Gov. George Deukmejian’s eight years in office is being indelibly etched on the Orange County landscape with the concrete ribbons of freeway lanes and the bulldozed beds of future toll roads.
More than anything, say local officials, frustrated commuters and road-starved developers will fondly remember California’s 35th governor for presiding over a major expansion of the county’s transportation arteries.
With Deukmejian’s support, Orange County has been given the freedom to break with tradition and make plans to build 70 miles of toll roads on its own in South County. The first real signs of this historic “privatization” appeared just last month, when bulldozers broke ground on a 7.6-mile leg of the Foothill Transportation Corridor through Rancho Santa Margarita.
The governor also made sure the state’s far-flung transportation bureaucracy paid closer attention to Orange County when he established its own Caltrans district office. The administrative move breathed new life into other local road plans that languished on the shelves of the Los Angeles Caltrans office.
“Transportation is the lifeblood issue of Orange County for economic reasons and quality-of-life reasons,” said Supervisor Gaddi H. Vasquez, who served on Deukmejian’s Sacramento staff in the mid-1980s. “Our ability to make great progress in transportation is a great deal due to the governor authorizing the changes.
“In that respect, the governor really helped Orange County.”
In other respects, though, Orange County has taken some knocks under Deukmejian.
It was the governor’s chief political fund-raiser, contacting his regulatory appointees, who helped win approval for Lincoln Savings & Loan to peddle worthless junk bonds to thousands of unsuspecting retirees throughout the county. They lost hundreds of thousands of dollars when Lincoln Savings collapsed, toppling financier Charles H. Keating Jr. in one of the nation’s most infamous scandals of influence-peddling and greed.
Under Deukmejian, the state promised but failed to start paying its $380-million share of the Santa Ana River flood control project, a $1.4-billion undertaking federal engineers say is crucial to protecting lives and property in much of the county. The Legislature wanted to make its first $32-million down payment on the state share last year, but Deukmejian cut it out of the budget.
Deukmejian touched off a storm of local protest earlier this year when his Administration followed the Medfly into Orange County and ordered the aerial spraying of malathion over a 36-square-mile area that included Huntington Beach, Anaheim, Santa Ana, Brea and La Habra.
The governor also vetoed legislation this year aimed at cracking down on the latest proliferation of garment industry sweatshops in central Orange County, where dozens of immigrants and children toil for substandard wages.
Meanwhile, Orange County’s growing population of poor and needy also took the brunt of the Deukmejian Administration economies as the fiscally conservative governor held the line on state payments for welfare, indigent health care and other social programs.
Deukmejian’s budget cuts for last year alone left the county $47 million short, sending officials scrambling to scale back programs and staunch the flow of red ink. The result: overburdened courts, dwindling help for the mentally ill and less money to pay doctors for treating the uninsured sick.
“It definitely was not a progressive eight years for health care,” said Thomas Uram, director of the Health Care Agency of Orange County. “There were no COLAs (cost-of-living increases) in some programs and some of our programs were cut.”
One example has been the county’s program to provide health care to poor adults, most of whom work but carry no medical insurance, Uram said. The number of poor who needed medical attention has doubled to 22,000 since 1985, while the state’s contribution to the program has dropped from $33 million to $13 million.
The cutbacks have forced the county to drop its reimbursement to private physicians, who by some figures are treating patients for as little as 11 cents on the dollar.
Funding cuts have also delivered a double message to county courts: Get tough with crooks but don’t spend a lot of money doing it.
Under Deukmejian, the Orange County Superior Court--where the more serious criminal and civil matters are tried--was expanded from 46 to 59 judgeships. The law-and-order governor also left his mark by appointing a majority of 33 conservative jurists to the Superior Court bench, statistics show.
Yet those changes, and an influx of state money under a recent trial court funding program, still haven’t been enough to keep up with proceedings that send twice the number of new felons to prison than when Deukmejian became governor.
Currently there are 17 more Superior Court judges than courtrooms, said the court’s executive officer, Alan Slater--an equation that bodes ill for a system that has seen its criminal case filings doubled since Deukmejian took office. Orange County residents also continue to file more personal injury lawsuits than anyone else in the state.
“The county is in much worse shape in the last few years, despite trial court funding, than when Deukmejian took over as governor,” Slater said. “If we don’t have another case filed, we have enough cases now for the next three to four years.”
Complaints about Deukmejian, however, are rare in the bastion of conservative Republicanism that helped put him in office. Orange County delivered a margin of 166,000 votes for the former attorney general in 1982, enough for a razor-thin victory over Los Angeles Mayor Tom Bradley in the heated race.
Now, eight years later, the county’s support has turned into praise for a man who shares its tenets of limiting government while nurturing the private sector. Frugal and intractable, Deukmejian has been Orange County’s soul mate in the Capitol, often relying on local lawmakers to help him slow down public spending by the Democrat-controlled Legislature.
“One major bottom line that Orange Countians received benefits from is that he didn’t raise their taxes,” Sen. John Seymour (R-Anaheim) said. “He held the tough line for eight years, and it wasn’t an easy line to hold.”
Holding the line meant that George Deukmejian was no visionary, no innovator of new programs, Seymour said.
Still, the Deukmejian era did not leave Orange County unchanged. Under his direction, the state has aggressively expanded its Chino Hills park and agreed to help pay for restoration of the Huntington Beach Pier. Park and recreation projects have received $80 million in bond proceeds or state funding during the past eight years, figures show.
Deukmejian has looked to Orange County to help reshape the judicial and political landscape as well. He has tapped its women and minorities for many important jobs in state government, including the recent promotion of Superior Court Judge Manuel A. Ramirez of Yorba Linda to be presiding justice for the 4th District Court of Appeal.
He appointed Marianthi Lansdale, wife of a wealthy Huntington Beach contributor, to the California State University Board of Trustees. He continued to back Lansdale after she publicly apologized last year for claiming a phony community college degree on her official application for the government post.
In 1984, Deukmejian appointed his former law partner, Malcolm M. Lucas of Los Alamitos, as an associate justice of the California Supreme Court. The governor promoted Lucas again in 1987 to chief justice, replacing liberal Rose Elizabeth Bird, who had been voted out of office.
Yet his best-known Orange County appointment remains Vasquez, whom Deukmejian chose in 1987 to fill a vacancy on the Board of Supervisors.
A former city of Orange police officer and chief deputy appointments secretary for Deukmejian, the move made Vasquez the highest-ranking Republican Latino officeholder in California and catapulted him into the national limelight.
Vasquez was subsequently chosen to deliver a speech at the 1988 Republican National Convention in New Orleans, and his name is being mentioned as a possible replacement for Gov.-elect Pete Wilson in the U.S. Senate.
“There’s no question that appointing me to the Board of Supervisors was an appointment that caught a great amount of attention for a lot of different reasons,” Vasquez said.
Deukmejian has drawn the most attention, however, for presiding over the expansion of Orange County’s hard-pressed transportation system. Local officials unanimously agreed that the hallmark of his administration will be freeway widening and the advent of private thoroughfares.
In all, there have been more than 260 miles of freeway and toll road lanes built or planned for Orange County. They include 76 miles of car-pool lanes added to the San Diego and Costa Mesa freeways, as well as the widening of the Santa Ana-Costa Mesa freeway interchange. Plans are in the works to double the width of the Santa Ana Freeway between the San Diego and Riverside freeways, as well as to build private roads throughout South County and in the middle of the Santa Ana River flood plain.
Former Gov. Edmund G. Brown Jr., uniformly blamed for blocking such projects in the 1970s, said Deukmejian’s reputation as a transportation savior is undeserved.
“As a matter of fact, under my administration we raised the gas tax 2 cents and made it effective on the morning Deukmejian was sworn in,” said Brown, now chairman of the state Democratic Party. “So we paved the way for whatever road building that has occurred in Orange County during the past eight years.”
Not so, others say.
“We had literally come to a standstill with road-building in Orange County,” said Sen. Marian Bergeson (R-Newport Beach), a Deukmejian partisan.
That began to change slowly under Deukmejian, who controls highway spending indirectly through his appointments to the California Transportation Commission. One of his first choices was Bruce Nestande, former assemblyman and Orange County supervisor.
In the summer of 1983, legislation passed that rewrote the highway funding formula so it considered Orange County separately from Los Angeles. The summer also marked the first time that state highway construction plans were written in such a way that Orange County would get as much money for projects from Sacramento as it paid out in gasoline taxes.
But the master stroke, local officials say, came when Deukmejian ordered in March, 1987, that Orange County should have its own Caltrans office. The start-up staff of seven has since grown into 700 people, working in offices at the Dyer Road exit of the Costa Mesa Freeway.
Not only did the move mark a psychological break with Los Angeles, it gave Orange County projects greater visibility. Moving Caltrans to Orange County made it easier to work with outside consultants and contractors as well.
“That’s hard to do when you are located in Los Angeles and there are meetings to schedule and blueprints to look at,” said Albert Miranda, Caltrans spokesman in Orange County. “Having a local office cuts that processing time considerably.”
Still, these changes wouldn’t be enough to satisfy the county’s insatiable need for new pavement. The fact that state road funds were dwindling, and local citizens turned down a half-cent sales tax for transportation, required the county to call on its political soul mate in the governor’s chair for an even bolder measure.
That measure was toll roads. In June, 1985, Deukmejian signed legislation authorizing local officials to buck tradition and build their own 70 miles of private roadway in development-ripe South County.
So were born the Orange County toll roads.
Pay-for-use roadways were common during the Gold Rush days but were eventually abandoned when the state assumed responsibility for major thoroughfares after the turn of the century. Orange County had come full circle with its “privatization” plan to finance its proposed freeways through property assessments on developers and tolls charged commuters.
Deukmejian hailed the “public-private partnership” showcased in the Orange County toll roads and used them to launch the state in a new era of transportation “privatization.”
He was so enthusiastic about the approach that he demanded that a reluctant Legislature allow Caltrans to build four more private toll road projects in the state as part of the bargain for his political support of the 9-cent-a-gallon gasoline tax increase endorsed by voters in June.
The agency asked entrepreneurs to submit bids on where they would like to build the roads, and when the winning applications were unveiled in September, Orange County once again emerged the big winner with two projects.
One route would link the area around Anaheim Stadium with John Wayne Airport with an 11.2-mile, $700-million elevated toll road; the other would build a 10-mile, $88.3-million toll road in the median of the Riverside Freeway from Anaheim to the San Bernardino County line.
The projects brought to five the number of private toll roads that will be built during the next decade in Orange County, which is now left to count its transportation blessings under the tenure of a governor who many have claimed was miserly and unimaginative.
“I’d say Orange County came off a winner,” Vasquez said.