Behind the Smoke

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

Unlike many politicians, Dunn prefers unadulterated honesty to obfuscation. During an interview, a reporter found himself repeatedly asking the senator if he intended his forthright answers to be on the record. Each time, Dunn looked slightly offended by the question. "Well, of course," he said in his trademark midwestern nasal accent.

Take, for example, this question: Why does Measure H send much more money to the hospitals and emergency-room doctors than to community clinics, which some experts say are the frontlines in the battle to treat the truly needy?

Others might have argued around the question—ignored it or tried desperately to show the moral sense in that allocation. Not Dunn, for whom the answer is partly political calculation. "To make sure Measure H wins, we had to consider a balance of politics and policy," he said. "The primary funding for the campaign is coming from the emergency-room doctors and the hospitals. The community clinics aren't able to contribute that much. They get less [of the settlement funds]. It's that simple."

Moorlach has been equally blunt. He acknowledges that his settlement-allocation formula is based at least partially on electoral considerations. Like Measure H, the counterinitiative sends without restrictions valuable funds to the bottomless money pit also known as the Sheriff's Department. It is also not a coincidence that Measure G mirrors Measure H on funds to be sent to the powerful, resource-plenty hospitals as compensation for treating the poor.

Dunn chuckled about Moorlach's savvy.

"John's not a dummy," said Dunn. "He was trying to avoid unleashing a potential giant in the election."

Said Moorlach, "Hey, don't fool yourself: neither of these measures is going to solve the health-care crisis."

Dunn and Spitzer don't argue that the tobacco settlement can fix a complicated, multifaceted issue involving 425,000 county citizens—including more than 90,000 children—who lack sufficient access to doctors and hospitals. They note, however, that even if Measure H isn't perfect, even if it is the product of a cobbled-together coalition characterized by self-interest, it delivers as much as $14 million more to health care each year than Moorlach's Measure G.

"The bottom line is that these are health-care dollars, and they should be used on health care," Dunn said. "The county doesn't take the transportation dollars it gets from Sacramento and use those for the bankruptcy. The county doesn't take the funds for the red ant problem and then use those for the bankruptcy. Why should health-care dollars be treated any differently?"

An official answer to that question may have been supplied recently on OCN by interim CEO Michael Schumacher. The former head of the county's Health Care Agency replaced Mittermeier in July. Without a hint of emotion, he said, "We have other priorities in Orange County."

Apparently, Schumacher and the board majority—Chuck Smith, Cynthia Coad and Silva—don't believe there is a health-care crisis. In the current fiscal year, the first one with settlement funds available, the supervisors used not one additional dollar for medical needs. Instead, they voted to use the bulk of the money for supplemental debt payments to Wall Street (for which taxpayers already pay between $60 million and $90 million per year) and for building new jails. In their counterproposal, health-care advocates went so far as to suggest that 100 percent of the settlement be used for non-health-care expenditures—debt reduction, jail construction, whatever—if interest on the money would be designated for health care. The three Republicans essentially responded with upturned middle fingers. They refused to agree to spend one penny of the settlement on health care, and Measure H was launched.

Dunn remains puzzled. "Three of the five supervisors like to say that health care is a priority in Orange County, but their actions prove otherwise. It's just crazy. I guess that will be one of the mysteries of all this."

Late in the afternoon of Oct. 27, a casually dressed Moorlach was sitting in a pink chair in a drab government office conference room. Both of his enormous hands were flat on the wooden table. Blank sheets of paper and a black pen sat before him. He was not happy. An Oct. 15 Los Angeles Times story on the contest was still fresh on his mind. He considered the article by veteran reporter David Reyes "biased," "juvenile" and full of reputation-scarring innuendo. The story prompted Moorlach to write a detailed, four-page letter of complaint to the Times. In part, he wanted to know why the article carried the subhead "Some call [Moorlach] tool of supervisors." The tag infuriates the treasurer not just because he says it is wrong but also because Reyes did not identify who these "some" are: no one made the assertion on the record.

"I am getting a little tired of the accusations that I am a tool of the supervisors. That story should have never seen the light of day," said Moorlach. "Look, I wouldn't be here today [with Measure G] if the supervisors had done their job. They were wrong not to compromise. I've said that publicly all along. I think that tobacco-settlement money should be used for health care. Sure, some people are upset at me because they thought they were just going to have to fight a 'Yes on H' battle. But I couldn't stand by. The taxpayers needed a compromise that benefits everyone across the board and not just the medical association."

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