Gov. Jerry Brown signed legislation Tuesday that charges consumers a 1 percent tax on lumber products starting in January and restricts damages landowners pay for sparking wildfires.
The timber industry backed Assembly Bill 1492 for several reasons: Consumers will pay for regulatory costs that landowners previously paid; the liability provisions could restrict payouts in future federal lawsuits; harvest plans remain effective for longer periods, resulting in less frequent environmental reviews; and the tax applies to purchases of imported lumber that comprises the majority of wood sold, in addition to in-state products.
"California's laws have saddled our timber industry with costly burdens while giving out-of-state competitors a free ride but that stops today," Brown said in a statement. "This legislation enacts serious bipartisan reform to even the playing field to protect California's timber-industry jobs."
The California Forestry Association argued that small timber companies were at risk of going under because they faced high regulatory costs and could not get sufficient insurance in light of record-high wildfire lawsuit awards.
Some environmentalists supported the bill because it generates $30 million for timber regulatory activities, especially at the Department of Fish and Game, whose budget has faced cuts in recent years. They said it would enable the state to conduct more thorough reviews of tree-cutting plans.
But other environmentalists had concerns about loosening time restrictions on timber harvest reviews, as well as narrowing liability provisions.
Lumber retailers Home Depot and Lowe's were opposed, as were dealers that sell wood to home builders. The Howard Jarvis Taxpayers Association also opposed the bill.
The signing came one day before a meeting of the Board of Forestry and Fire Prevention, which is expected to decide today which wood products will be taxed. A draft regulation says that solid wood products such as lumber, fence boards and wooden roof shakes would be charged. So would "engineered" and "composite" wood products such as particle board.
Exempt would be furniture, paper products, indoor flooring, firewood, cabinets and sporting goods, among other finished items.
The new charge will relieve the state general fund from spending tens of millions of dollars money now potentially free for use on education and social service programs unrelated to lumber.
The bill died near the close of the legislative session, only to be revived in the final minutes with the bare minimum of votes to reach Brown's desk. The proposal was a major win for the timber industry, which employed some of Sacramento's most powerful lobbyists in the final month of session.