Rural fire-prevention fee suspended


California lawmakers voted this week to extend for another decade the state’s legislation that takes on climate change. The cap-and-trade program will continue through 2030.
Also included in this legislation is a suspension of the state’s fire prevention fee, a controversial assessment charged to homeowners who live in rural, fire-prone areas in California. The suspension takes place immediately although the recently received fiscal-year fee is still due within 30 days of receipt of the statement.
The fire fee, which has been controversial and argued to be an unconstitutional tax, originated with the 2011 state budget package. It was intended to increase and fund fire-prevention activities in the state’s wildland areas, such as Three Rivers.
The fire fee has been in effect since July 1, 2014. In areas where Cal Fire has the primary firefighting responsibility, the fire fee is $152.33 per “habitable structure.” In Three Rivers, the fee was about $117 annually per residence, owing to a $35 deduction for being within a local fire district (Tulare County).
Funds collected have paid for fire-prevention projects and grants. Tens of millions of dollars also have been held in budgetary reserves.
Critics call the fee illegal, and a lawsuit continues to make its way through the court system. In addition, local fire district officials throughout the state have complained that the state fee undermines their budgets by making it more difficult to pass local funding measures.
Lawmakers on both sides of the aisle who represent districts with large numbers of fire-fee payers have introduced legislation over the past several years to repeal or scale back the fee, but with no success.
Enter the political deal making in Sacramento. The new cap-and-trade legislation is mostly favored by Democrats. So to get this environmental program passed, they dangled the fire-fee to Republicans as a carrot. It worked; the cap-and-trade bill passed while the fire-prevention fee was terminated.
Eight Republicans joined with Democrats to continue the cap-and-trade program. California’s innovative program requires industries to obtain permits for the greenhouse gases they emit as an incentive for companies to reduce their carbon footprint. Emissions are “capped,” and companies can “trade” for more capacity through a state-run auction or on the private market. Cap-and-trade also generates revenue for the bullet train from San Francisco to Los Angeles.
This program is the only one of its kind in the U.S. and could become an international model for using financial pressure to convince industries to reduce emissions. The only State Senator to vote in favor of the bill was Tom Berryhill, a Republican from Modesto, whose district includes Three Rivers.
“This bill suspends the illegal fire tax and keeps Sacramento Democrats from increasing taxes on gas by substantially more than one dollar per gallon,” said Senator Berryhill. “This bill is not perfect, but it is more reasonable after a bipartisan negotiation. I am very pleased to have given farmers, small-business owners, and rural Californians a voice in the negotiation of a measure that would have been passed one way or another.”

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