Behind the Smoke

Measure G to the countys poor: Go to the end of the line, and wait there for 20 yearsagain

Orange County Treasurer John Moorlach has called it "manna from heaven"—the estimated $950 million county government will receive over 25 years as a result of the state's litigation settlement with the tobacco industry.

But the manna has hit the fan: when the county's Board of Supervisors voted early this year to spend the money on debt reduction, health-care industry officials and advocates of the poor rallied with Measure H, a countywide Nov. 7 initiative that proposes spending the bulk of the windfall on health care for the poor.

Measure H has something for almost everybody, including millions of dollars for those who don't really need it. For example, to purchase the political neutrality of Sheriff Mike Carona, Measure H offers the county's cops a $6 million-per-year unrestricted bonus. It also proposes spending $3.6 million per year on anti-tobacco education programs already well-funded by Sacramento.

But Measure H also fills a hole that has yawned since the 1994 county bankruptcy: it provides millions of dollars per year for senior care, community clinics, emergency-room doctors and the hospital emergency rooms treating the county's indigent.

Moorlach says he looked at H and saw an opportunity for a middle way: a countermeasure, Measure G, which would put away $12 million per year for debt reduction and still, he says, pay for indigent care. His measure would retire the bankruptcy debt by 2019—10 years earlier than scheduled—and save the county millions of dollars in interest payments.

Moorlach is modest about his number-crunching. "My allocation is as scientific as theirs . . . which means not at all," Moorlach says. "There is not necessarily any rhyme or reason with any of this. But their numbers are ramped up, and mine are more reasonable—with the added benefit of retiring the taxpayers' debt earlier."

From his premise that Measure H's "numbers are ramped up," Moorlach might have cut H's most obvious pork—its allocations to the Sheriff's Department and anti-tobacco advertising agencies—and generated more than $9 million for deficit reduction. But he did not. Instead, Moorlach—acting, he says, as a "committee of one"—found his savings in programs that serve the county's most vulnerable. He cut H's proposed spending on vital community health clinics from $6 million per year to just $1.8 million. And when it came to compensating the physicians who provide indigent care in emergency rooms, Moorlach slashed H's allocation from $6.9 million to just $1.8 million. He found another $2.1 million in senior care. Total redistribution to debt reduction: $11.4 million per year.

Moorlach doesn't see the problem. "I think Measure G addresses the problem [indigent health care] by allocating funds to the hospitals for their emergency services for the poor," he said. And in retiring the bankruptcy debt a decade early, he insists, he's "fighting for the little guy"—by which he means the county's taxpayers.

In the months after the 1994 bankruptcy, county supervisors slashed millions from public-health programs. They promised that one day they'd find the cash to address dire medical needs. With the tobacco settlement, that day seemed to have arrived. Now, Moorlach is asking the poor—the county's real little guys—once again to wait.

It's just one of many ironies in the contentious fight over tobacco-settlement dollars that Moorlach sees "this election as a little like David vs. Goliath"—with his 6-foot-5 self as the little guy.

There was a time when Moorlach was a little guy. Born in the Netherlands, he arrived in the U.S. with his family on a ship in 1960 and grew up in Buena Park. He became a mild-mannered CPA, but one with a not-so-mild appetite for politics. He once headed the decidedly right-wing Costa Mesa Republican Assembly, where the Bible frequently overshadows the Constitution.

Moorlach made his name as an out-of-nowhere genius in his run for the county treasurer's job, then held by Democrat Robert L. "Bob" Citron. Citron was staking the taxpayers' billions on a risky Wall Street gamble, and had become wildly popular for his ability to generate huge returns on those investments. In the 1994 treasurer's race, Moorlach was David to Citron's Goliath. He predicted that Citron's bets would fail if the market went south. But his predictions were dismissed even by fellow Republicans as mere politics, the jeremiads of a right-wing nut desperately looking for a campaign advantage where there were none. He lost badly. And then the markets quickly went badly for Citron. In December 1994, the county declared bankruptcy in the nation's largest such failure ever. When Citron was sent to jail, Moorlach was crowned treasurer.

Consistently soft-spoken, courteous, and quick with a handshake or hearty laugh, Moorlach is gracious even to those who don't necessarily share his views. It might come as a surprise that the 44-year-old attended the Weekly's 5th Anniversary rock & roll bash at the Galaxy Concert Theatre in September. Don't mistake his congenial manner for wishy-washy convictions, however. Liberal ideas and lifestyles likely produce unpleasant acidic enzymes in his stomach. His political beliefs center on fiscal and social conservatism. He is a plain-spoken, sentimental family man who prominently displays a Ronald Reagan memento in his office, sometimes carries a Bible to public events and once said teenagers under the age of 18 should not have access to condoms.

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