Behind the Smoke

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

And though he continues to see himself as an underdog, Moorlach is now quite obviously one of the county's political giants. Having established his credibility in the bankruptcy's aftermath, his endorsement can now help carry political measures such as school-bond initiatives to victory. He taught former county CEO Jan Mittermeier —who displayed despotic tendencies during her tenure as the county's top unelected official—that the elected treasurer was not one of her minions. He startled politically well-connected toll road interests last year when he condemned a proposed insider deal to sell the 91 toll road; the deal went nowhere. Nowadays, more than a few elected officials and bureaucrats around the county consult him before making key decisions about government finance. Usually arrogant Wall Street investment-house giants nervously monitor his pronouncements. Since former Sheriff Brad Gates withdrew from the scene two years ago to manage the millions of dollars in personal assets he collected while a public servant, Moorlach has emerged with Supervisor Todd Spitzer as one of Orange County's top local political heavyweights. One sure sign that his star has risen is that other Republican officials regularly take petty shots at him—almost always off the record.

Despite his unmistakable power, Moorlach continues boldly to paint himself as "little David" in an effort to convince voters that the "Goliath" health-care community's Measure H should be defeated by his more cautious Measure G. But Measure H's backers say they're the defenders of the little guys. They propose that 80 percent of the tobacco settlement go to improve community health care for the indigent, elderly and working poor. H's supporters include the American Association of Retired People, local hospitals, numerous emergency-room physicians, the American Heart Association and AIDS Services Foundation as well as the Orange County Business Council, the South County Chambers of Commerce and U.S. Representatives Loretta Sanchez (D-Garden Grove) and Dana Rohrabacher (R-Huntington Beach). Moorlach says his Measure G addresses medical needs while further paying down the county's massive bankruptcy debt. The Orange County Taxpayers Association, the local Deputy Sheriff's Association and former Assemblyman Curt Pringle support Measure G.

In a key provision, Measure G makes this interesting concession to health-care advocates: after the debt is paid off (in about 2019), Moorlach's plan would give 70 percent of the tobacco money to health care. But there are problems with that strategy: in the next 20 years, a lot of water—and many humans—will flow under the health-care bridge; they will not be helped much by the promise of additional money in 2020. Then there's the county's track record on public health, a record so dismal that it consistently places wealthy Orange County near the bottom of California counties on such spending. Can anyone, even Moorlach, guarantee that a future Board of Supervisors won't act as Orange County supervisors always have and use that 70 percent to fund new and creative public-health programs that have nothing to do with the poor?

There's much at stake in the battle: if neither measure gets 50 percent of the vote, then the Board of Supervisors gets to decide how to spend all the money. That county residents have been treated to the G vs. H debate is because the board is politically tone deaf: in its own deliberations, the board offered everything to debt reduction and nothing to health care.

To varying degrees, both measures spend the funds on services for senior and disabled persons, on hospital and physician reimbursement for emergency-room indigent services, on anti-tobacco campaigns and addiction programs, and on nonprofit community clinics for the poor. For nothing other than political posturing, both measures also throw roughly 20 percent of the money—likely more than a whopping $200 million—to the power-hungry, budget-rich Sheriff's Department. Like other county leaders, Moorlach probably does not want a scuffle with Sheriff Mike Carona. The two men share near identical ideological perspectives within Tom Fuentes' largely monolithic Orange County Republican Party. If there is a villain in Moorlach's eyes, it's the hospitals, doctors and health-care company executives who he says have exaggerated their claims of financial hardship from picking up the government's obligation to medically treat the uninsured poor. He is not impressed that the private local hospitals say they shelled out of their own pockets an estimated $200 million last year for such services. From the middle of one of more than a dozen neatly stacked piles of paper in his Santa Ana office, Moorlach deftly pulled out a newspaper clipping.

"Look at this," he said, pointing to a recent Los Angeles Times business section report on huge profits and wildly generous executive compensation at one of the county's largest health-care companies. "When I get mad, I get motivated. We have to have something that's fair. . . . I'm doing this compromise [Measure G] as a favor to the taxpayers."

Another prop in Moorlach's arsenal is a copy of a blistering open letter a stockholder sent Tenet Healthcare Corporation chairman Jeff Barbakow last month. (Tenet owns numerous medical facilities in Orange County.) The stockholder ridiculed Barbakow for reportedly using company funds to buy two $20 million luxury jets "at the expense of better medical care." But Republicans complain about hefty corporate profits and generous CEO perks about as often as a lunar eclipse falls in a leap year. Seemingly unconcerned that he was charting new GOP waters, Moorlach barreled ahead.

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