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Will Voters Be Taken for a Ride With Measure M Funds?

Well, it sounded good for a while, this notion that the public could decide what to do with Measure M tax dollars.

After all, it took Measure M sponsors three times to persuade voters to pass it. Three times to lay out exactly what was going to be built and fixed with the increased sales tax and, as importantly, how to ease people’s minds that the money wouldn’t be used for something else.

Apparently content that the various projects were needed and that their tax money would be protected, Orange County voters in 1990 finally said “yes” to the half-cent sales tax increase. Elections like that almost amount to a sacred trust between voters and public officials.

Since then, local voters have said “no” to identical tax increases for a new jail and for this year’s ill-fated bankruptcy recovery. Orange Countians, it would appear, are a discriminating lot when it comes to spending their money.

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That suits the local Republican leadership just fine, most of the time. That kind of fiscal conservatism plays neatly into the leadership’s thesis that only Democrats disdain voters with the way they ignore their wishes while reaching into their pockets. You may recall a lot of chest-thumping from local Republicans after Measure R went down, as officials touted the wisdom of Orange County voters.

Yes, folks, the good ol’ GOP loves to pat you on the back and tell you how you know best. It’s a philosophical thread that runs from the county Republican Party leadership, on through the County Central Committee and right on into the county legislative delegation.

In fact, they’ll spout those homilies all night long--until they get in the way, that is, of the cold realities of politics. At that point--and I hate to be the one to tell you this--you become little more than an annoyance. A roadblock, if you will, around which they must go.

Currently, there is no colder reality than Orange County’s bankruptcy and the need to find money to plug the hole.

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The Board of Supervisors had its shot at it and came up empty. The state is breathing down Orange County’s neck, and the all-Republican local delegation feels the heat.

Accordingly, it has trained its sights on the Orange County Transportation Authority and the sales-tax revenue it gets from the state. The delegation wants to reroute those funds to the bankrupt county. To make up for OCTA’s lost revenue, according to the delegation, the agency could simply dip into Measure M funds.

That debate will be played out over the next few weeks. I’m not even making the argument that the voting public, if it had a chance, might not approve of diverting Measure M money for such a purpose.

What we can say is that the delegation has been pretty darn blase, to say the least, about the prospects for doing so. It’s almost as if it doesn’t care what you might have been thinking when you passed Measure M five years ago.

As recently as July 10, state Sen. John R. Lewis of Orange County gave lip service to the public. While pointing out that the delegation needed to move quickly on a bankruptcy plan, Lewis noted that “each proposal will take time. If we were to divert a portion of Measure M monies, for example, the Legislature would need to act by mid-August, at the latest, to put the issue before the voters on the November ballot.”

You don’t hear anyone in the delegation talking about a November vote anymore. An aide in Lewis’ office said late Friday that the delegation got a legislative counsel’s opinion that an election wouldn’t automatically be necessary.

Bill Hodge, an OCTA official, concurs, to a point. He says some “backfill” might be possible with Measure M money, but was quick to add that the amount the delegation was talking about--until the governor vetoed the bill last week--far surpasses what would be permissible without a public vote.

“Measure M was passed specifically to implement a detailed list of projects that voters saw [written down] in the voting booth,” Hodge says. The measure passed with 54% of the vote, “so I think the public has spoken. The issue is: Should that be changed?”

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The answer is that it may be changed. Or not. We’ve all learned by now not to predict anything when it comes to this bankruptcy.

But I will float this theory: Don’t be surprised to wake up some morning and read in the morning paper that you’re not exactly getting what you paid for when you voted “yes” way back when on Measure M.

At that moment, remind yourself to trust your delegation. After all, they know what’s best for you.

Dana Parsons’ column appears Wednesday, Friday and Sunday.


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