In a sharp split with top Republican government and business leaders in Orange County, the GOP central committee is unanimously opposing a half-cent increase in the sales tax as a means of recovering from bankruptcy.
Among those joining in the central committee's vote Monday night was Orange County Treasurer-Tax Collector John M.W. Moorlach, who first sounded warnings about the county's investment practices during a failed election campaign last year.
Moorlach, who was recently appointed to the office he had sought after the resignation of Treasurer-Tax Collector Robert L. Citron, on Tuesday backed away from the central committee vote, saying that he is still "soul searching" on the issue.
"I'm still trying to see what other alternatives we can come up with," said Moorlach, adding that he probably should have abstained and expects to make up his mind in a few days.
Top business leaders, the sheriff, district attorney and a majority of the supervisors have endorsed the June 27 ballot measure, while Republican tax opponents have taken a more populist, anti-government tone with a call for greater budget cuts, privatization and asset sales.
At its monthly meeting Monday night, the central committee--a key organizing and ideological force within the Republican Party--passed a resolution against the sales tax measure "without discussion, without any controversy whatsoever," said Howard Klein, an Irvine patent attorney and central committee member.
"The county has not taken any of the drastic steps necessary to address the problems of a bloated bureaucracy," Klein said. "There has been no serious attempt to out-source, privatize, downsize or sell its assets. And there has been no serious attempt that I can see to force the bondholders, many of whom are speculators, to renegotiate their bonds."
The move comes directly in the face of a coalition of the most influential leaders in the county who are leading the charge for Measure R. They include Sheriff Brad Gates, who is chairman of the Citizens for Economic Progress--Yes on Measure R campaign; Gary Hunt, an Irvine Co. executive; and county Chief Executive Officer William J. Popejoy.
These proponents have spent the past few weeks portraying Measure R as vital to the future of the bankrupt county. A defeat of the tax increase would plunge the county into a "Third World economy," with sharp declines in property values, bankrupt schools and perhaps a state government takeover, according Measure R backers.
Stu Mollrich of Butcher, Forde and Mollrich, the political consulting firm running the pro-Measure R campaign, said local Republican Central Committee delegates are out of step with the majority of the rank-and-file members.
"The party leadership is very, very conservative and has always gone on record in opposition to tax increases," said Mollrich, whose firm represents only Republicans. "But a lot of Republicans support the initiative. If you look at the leadership of our (pro-Measure R) committee--Sheriff Brad Gates, the county district attorney (Michael R. Capizzi) and William Popejoy--these are all Republicans and active in Republican politics. Not all Republicans agree on this issue."
Mollrich said he is confident that partisan politics ultimately will not matter in this kind of issue and that voters will remain open-minded and support Measure R.
Reed Royalty, a Republican and executive vice president of the Orange County Taxpayers Assn., agreed with Mollrich that Measure R should not be approached in political terms.
"This is not a political thing. It's not a partisan problem," he said. "It's about business and quality of life and homeowner issues."
Royalty, a member of the Yes on Measure R campaign, said that while the central committee "has a right to its opinion," voters should look at what would happen if the tax hike is not approved. A state takeover would be disastrous for the county, he said.
Moorlach pointed out that the Republican Party has a history of being divided over ballot measures. He pointed to Proposition 172, the public safety initiative passed by voters in 1993 that was opposed by the state GOP.
"At that time, you had Gov. Wilson and Sheriff Gates for the proposition and the California Republican Party opposed to it," he said. "Even good Republicans can disagree on issues."
Todd Nicholson, president of the Orange County Business Council and a supporter of Measure R, said it was rare for him and other council members to differ with the GOP on a tax issue.
"It's strange because we usually find ourselves in agreement," Nicholson said. "This is clearly a unique issue that affects the county internally. Obviously, honest, well-intentioned people have arrived at different conclusions."
Nicholson said he wasn't sure how much weight the central committee's rejection of Measure R would have on voters.
"Whenever any organized entity supports or opposes something, it is likely to influence those who feel akin to that group," he said. "The question in my mind for people who are opposed (to Measure R) is, what are the alternatives?"
Times correspondent Shelby Grad contributed to this report.
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