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Jerry Brown wants to expand use of fire fee

Published: Wednesday, Feb. 6, 2013 - 12:00 am | Page 4A
Last Modified: Tuesday, Feb. 26, 2013 - 8:16 pm

Gov. Jerry Brown wants to expand how the state can spend new fire fee proceeds, while Republican legislators want to kill the charge entirely.

In a series of proposals, GOP lawmakers and the Democratic governor are jockeying over ways to change the controversial $150 annual fee on 825,000 properties mostly located in rural areas.

State leaders approved the "fire prevention fee" in 2011 as a way to raise money for the California Department of Forestry and Fire Protection, and Brown said at the time that residential growth on the forest edges had led to higher state fire costs.

But Republicans and fee payers are angry about the charge, saying that it was a way for Democrats to pass a backdoor tax on GOP-leaning districts with only a majority vote. The Howard Jarvis Taxpayers Association filed a suit last year and the Office of Legislative Counsel believes the Brown administration is violating state law by spending fees on wildfire investigation.

Brown posted a bill proposal online last week that would allow the state to spend fire fees beyond where fee payers live. His bill would "additionally include fire projects in areas that immediately threaten state responsibility areas."

The proposal has one catch: Legislative Counsel identified it as a tax requiring two-thirds support of the Legislature. That may matter less now that Democrats have supermajority control of both houses, though even some Democrats who represent large rural areas have taken issue with the fire fee. Two-thirds approval of a new fire fee proposal would eliminate the legal concerns raised by Legislative Counsel late last week.

Sen. Ted Gaines, R-Rocklin, has proposed three bills. His first, Senate Bill 17, would eliminate the fee entirely. A second bill, SB 125, would exempt property owners who already pay local fire agencies for protection. A third bill, SB 147, would exempt property owners with household income below 200 percent of the federal poverty level.

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