CALIFORNIA ELECTIONS / PROPOSITION 185 : Measure's Foes Press for Convincing Loss : Opponents want to discourage promoters of beleaguered gas tax initiative from similar future efforts.


Like a football coach who deliberately runs up a score to humiliate the opposition, the opponents of Proposition 185, a proposal for a new tax on gasoline, are not just trying to make the measure lose--they want it to lose big.

So at a time when internal polls on both sides show the measure in serious trouble, the opposition is still turning up the heat, churning out news releases and media mailers.

Opposition leaders acknowledge that the heavy assault is part of a deliberate strategy to make Proposition 185 lose so badly that its promoters will be discouraged from ever proposing such an initiative again.

They have selected as the prime target not the initiative itself, but its promoters, the Planning and Conservation League, a veteran environmental group that has sponsored four initiatives in the past. Proposition 185, its fifth and latest initiative, would impose a new 4% sales tax on gasoline and use the revenue to finance a massive rebuilding of California's urban and intercity rail system--necessary, proponents say, to reduce air pollution and other environmental damage by getting people out of their cars.

But the opposition campaign is hammering less at those fundamental issues than at the league's acceptance of hundreds of thousands of dollars from two corporations that would benefit from the measure: railroad giant Southern Pacific and a rolling stock manufacturer, Morrison Knudsen Corp.

In its 78 pages of provisions, the initiative specifically allocates up to $200 million for the purchase of railroad right of way along a coastal route stretching from Gilroy to the Los Angeles County line. That right of way is owned by Southern Pacific, which has contributed $489,000 to the campaign to pass Proposition 185.

Likewise, the initiative requires the California Department of Transportation to use the new tax revenues to purchase rail cars under an existing contract. The contract is with Morrison Knudsen, manufacturer of the California car, a rail car specifically designed for the state. Morrison Knudsen, which was recently penalized $80,000 for late delivery of the car, contributed $150,000 to the Proposition 185 campaign.

However, in recent days Southern Pacific and Morrison-Knudsen said they have stopped giving contributions. Internal polls show the measure so far behind, they said, that it would be fruitless to give more money.

Gerald H. Meral, the scholarly zoologist who has headed the league since 1983 and masterminded its initiatives, said he is mystified that the contributions are even an issue although they have provided nearly 75% of the funding for his campaign.

"On the face of it, why is that bad?" he asks. "If the initiative as it stands is good for the public, then if it does benefit a large donor what's wrong with that?"

Despite the bleak prospects for passage, the league persists with the campaign. "We're not giving up, but we're worried," he said.

Larry McCarthy, president of the California Taxpayers Assn. and a leader of the No on 185 campaign, said it is a chief aim of many in his camp to end once and for all what he calls the league's "initiative industry."

"There is a concern on the part of our organization about PCL," McCarthy said, "and some of what they've tried to do with the initiative process. . . . There is a real concern that if this thing is not repudiated by voters, we'll see more of it."

To promote its message, the opposition distributes brochures entitled "Should California Taxpayers Pay $700 million More in Taxes to Pay for Sweetheart Deals?" News releases carry comments from prominent business people and politicians. "We must send a clear message that it's unacceptable for the promoters of Proposition 185 to . . . (turn) the initiative process into 'Let's Make a Deal,' " says one release quoting Senate Transportation Committee Chairman Quentin L. Kopp (I-San Francisco).

Kopp and his counterpart in the Assembly, Transportation Committee Chairman Richard Katz (D-Sylmar), have given added weight to the opposition campaign by becoming its most frequent spokesmen. They charge that the league includes certain projects in its initiatives not because they are meritorious but because their promoters believe that they will attract large contributions from rich corporations.

"To a large extent I think what's happening here is PCL has figured out a way to pay for their overhead by running these initiative campaigns where they get special interests to pony up big bucks in return for getting projects funded," Katz said.

He noted that earlier this year the league proposed a $2-billion parks bond issue--defeated by voters in June--that attracted large contributions from landholders whose property was designated for purchase if the measure passed.

Although the league does consult a wide range of interests in the writing of initiatives, including some that eventually contribute, Meral said contributions play no role in the design of its measures.

"The fact that businesses . . . are motivated to support something that happens to be in the public interest and is also in their business interest is a happy coincidence," he said.

The organization pays itself to run some of its campaigns, he said, but the amounts are small. Financial reports show that since mid-1993, the Planning and Conservation League has paid itself about $129,000 out of campaign funds for expenses and staff work.

R.F. Starzel, vice chairman of Southern Pacific Lines, said the environmental group is being attacked because it has chosen to go around the Legislature to make public policy.

"(Lawmakers) are infuriated at the notion that their little privy party should be invaded by such a bunch of Visigoths," he said.

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