California’s controversial rural fire fee that was enacted in the 2011-2012 state budget earlier this summer met with huge resistance and calls for its repeal almost immediately upon signature into law by Governor Jerry Brown.
Last week, however, Brown and many Democratic lawmakers said they are pushing for even higher rates than originally predicted in Brown’s budget.
Most recently the California Board of Forestry and Fire Protection had revised the law’s fee structure so that rural residents can only be charged a maximum of $90 (as opposed to $150). However, this change certainly affects the amount of revenue the state can hope to take in, as previous estimates projected $50 million in funds for the state.
The law was supposed to bring in $200 million annually after the first year.
The change did not sit well with the Governor.
According to a report in The Sacramento Bee, “[Brown’s] new proposal would impose a minimum of $175 on the first building and $25 on each additional structure. It would also assess a land fee starting at $1 per acre for the first 100 acres. Homeowners who live in fire districts, which includes 94 percent of the roughly 730,000 rural structures being charged, qualify for a $25 discount. When Brown signed the original plan, ABX1 29, he signaled it was flawed because it didn’t allow the state to use fee dollars to fight wildfires.”
But all that effort could come to naught if some legislators are successful at stalling the fees at the collecting stage.
According to the Regional Council for Rural Counties (RCRC), as of Wednesday, the Assembly version of the new State Responsibility Areas (SRA) fire fee bill, AB 24X, was heard in the Senate Budget Committee, but was not voted on, and set aside.
Meanwhile, in the Assembly, its companion measure, SB 7X, essentially the funding mechanism for the original bill, was scheduled to be heard in the Assembly Budget Committee, but was tabled, with the Chair citing “numerous concerns as cited by the Senate Budget Committee.”
In other drama, Assemblyman Kevin Jeffries (R-Riverside) made an attempt to offer amendments to an unrelated budget bill, AB 45X, which would repeal the existing statute sanctioning the SRA fee. The Budget Committee immediately moved to block the Jeffries amendment. All Republicans voted against the motion. But while most Democrats voted “aye,” a pair of Democrats, Assemblyman Wes Chesbro (D-Humboldt) and Assemblyman Jared Huffman (D-Marin) voted “no,” which analysts interpreted as a willingness on the part of some Democrats to consider a repeal of the SRA fee.
Representatives from numerous rural counties and supervisors, including Mono County, have been harshly critical of the fee. “It’s a lot of bullsh*t,” Supervisor Tim Hansen remarked.
Homeowners affected by the fee can expect to receive a bill in spring of 2012, but the dust is far from settled. Activist groups such as the Howard Jarvis Taxpayers Association have vowed to fight the fee “to the death” in the courts, should it be allowed to stand.
State Senator Ted Gaines (R-Roseville) has already filed a referendum to repeal the law. Jeffries was also expected to insert his AB 45X repeal language into other vehicles over the remaining two days of the legislative session. If none of the new bills are passed by the legislature by Friday, which isn’t seen as being likely, the fee’s collection mechanism could find itself essentially dead in committee, opening the door for a full repeal of the initial fee law.
-Additional sources: California County News, Sacramento Bee