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Orange County: Real People Are Hurting : The state and feds must step in, even if that means higher taxes.

<i> Robert Scheer is a former Times national correspondent</i>

“It’s like a fire sale at Gucci’s,” chortled Colleen O’Connor of the Washington-based Campaign for New Priorities, which works to divert defense dollars to the inner-city poor. But liberal Democrats laughing up their sleeves over the financial troubles of conservative Orange County have got it wrong.

To dismiss the county as a simple metaphor for Republican greed and hypocrisy is contemptuous of its 2 million inhabitants, many of whom are among the working poor and most of whom are not at all culpable. This is not a victimless crime.

To believe that the county’s residents are frolicking in a playground for the rich buys into a conservative Republican myth permitting indifference to the damage. “That’s not on our watch, that’s the supervisors’ battle” is how Rep. Robert K. Dornan (R-Garden Grove) put it before he left on a junket to Europe.

Nonsense. If people are hurting and the local government does not have the resources to meet the challenge, then the state and feds must step in to ease the pain. Just like in an earthquake or savings-and-loan scandal.

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Services are already being cut for people whose survival depends on them. Yes, the county has pockets of the truly wealthy and median income is high, but 15% of the population lives below the poverty line, 15,000 people are homeless and several hundred thousand risk hunger each month. A far larger group of working people are hanging by their fingernails to mortgage and credit-card payments and wondering how they can afford college for their kids. Even apparently prosperous families are often only a pink slip, an illness or a divorce removed from hard times.

Most Orange County residents are dependent on now-threatened public services and schools for their families’ well-being, no matter how they vote. True, a majority in the county voted in 1978 for Proposition 13, which is at the root of this disaster; so did a majority in the state. The overwhelming reason was a fear of not being able to hold onto one’s house in the face of inflation and rising taxes.

The shortfalls to local government and schools with Proposition 13 were not made up by more progressive corporate and personal state income taxes. And the Democratic governor, Jerry Brown, was no more willing than his Republican successors to build a constituency for raising the needed funds. Nor has the much ballyhooed lottery provided more than a pittance for schools.

In this funding void, cities and counties scrambled as best they could to provide minimum services. This is not a case of government excess. Municipal services are already cut to the bone and California’s schools rank 49th in the nation in class size.

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Orange County’s school districts were the most vulnerable, lacking a tax base and unable to get a two-thirds vote to raise money. Officials of the Irvine school district, one of the big losers in the current debacle, tried twice to pass property taxes and failed by slim margins. Hard to fault them for placing the rent money on former Treasurer Robert Citron’s betting table.

Harder yet to fault the schoolchildren in Irvine and other districts who will face even more overcrowded classes. If pending court actions don’t save the school districts, then relief from the state treasury is needed. If that means that taxes should be increased, so be it. We are the least taxed among citizens of industrialized nations, and yet we expect school systems and a publicly maintained infrastructure that can compete internationally.

Municipal governments had some better, though limited, revenue-raising options. One notable profile in courage was provided by former Irvine Mayor Larry Agran, who pushed through expanded business license and utility taxes that raised a needed $1 million a year. But he came to be condemned as anti-business; big money was pumped in against him, and Agran, a liberal Democrat, was defeated four years ago. The new leaders of Irvine jumped to repeal the business tax. Desperate for an alternative source of revenue, they shifted money into Citron’s Orange County fund and have already lost $17 million. They should have the decency to resign before their city asks for a bailout.

Agran does not write off the people of Irvine or Santa Ana just because they live in Orange County or most often vote Republican. This is not a matter of original sin. Anyway, belief in sound government serving the people shouldn’t be a partisan matter--recall Republicans Earl Warren and Nelson Rockefeller.

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Progressive Democrats and Republicans have to believe that the anti-government hysteria will come to be seen by voters for what it is--a trick by the privileged few that cheats most people who depend on a high level of public service. Even in Orange County.


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