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ORANGE COUNTY PERSPECTIVE : Use This Breather Wisely

The rush to approve a state budget this year came amid an urgent need to resolve the impasse over the Orange County bankruptcy. The Assembly gave final approval Wednesday to a $57-billion spending plan, but Gov. Pete Wilson vetoed legislation to divert transit taxes to Orange and Los Angeles counties. However, the matter is very likely to be raised again, and for now there are important questions to be answered locally about whether a transfer of funds would be prudent as fiscal and public policy.

The practical effect of the veto for Orange County was to put off temporarily the question of shifting $70 million a year in sales tax money from bus service to bankruptcy recovery for 15 years. Wilson’s action created a window between now and Aug. 21, the date when Assemblyman Curt Pringle (R-Garden Grove), the chief Orange County backer of the transit tax diversion, says he will introduce a new version of the bill.

This period ought to be used wisely to determine exactly what the merits and drawbacks of such a diversion would be. There is no more pressing issue in Orange County than bankruptcy recovery, but the debate in recent days was remarkable mostly for its lack of consensus on the actual state of Orange County transportation finances.

Will Orange County have to make the dire cuts in services to the working poor that opponents of the diversion foresaw? Nobody really seems to have a definitive answer, even after all the discussion in Sacramento and locally.

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Several supervisors who sit on the Orange County Transportation Authority board appeared to support the raid, but Supervisor William G. Steiner worried that the bill would bring the agency “to its knees.” OCTA Executive Director Stan Oftelie argued that 50,000 people a day could be adversely affected by such a transfer.

Neither were members of the county’s legislative delegation in complete agreement. Assembly Speaker Doris Allen (R-Cypress) opposed the measure, saying it should compete with other recovery plans. Legislative proponents of the transfer like Pringle did not seem much concerned with the effect on bus riders.

The Board of Supervisors and OCTA should recognize the overriding public interest in a full and public evaluation of the financial effect of a transfer on the agency. Legislative action later this month will be much better informed if it is based on an independent audit undertaken to determine exactly what effects a diversion might have.

With pressure mounting for the appointment of a powerful trustee to handle the recovery, the county doesn’t really have the luxury of a new round of political rhetoric.

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