State fire fee is suspended

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Last Monday, July 10, Gov. Edmund G. Brown Jr., Senate President pro Tempore Kevin de León and Assembly Speaker Anthony Rendon announced a legislative package for a comprehensive, statewide program to address air pollution where it matters most — in neighborhoods with the dirtiest air.

While this package does not address a major problem on the Hill, it does include language to mitigate another major irritation for local property owners — the State Fire Prevention Fee.

Assembly Bill 398 suspends the $152.33 annual fire fee as of July 1, 2017, and until Jan. 1, 2031. These funds, which are used for fire suppression, would be replaced with monies derived from the sale or auction of the allowances permitted under the revised cap and trade legislation.

Passage of AB 398 was not assured, but it did pass both the Senate and the Assembly with bi-partisan support Monday evening. One day after the announcement of the legislation, California’s Senate Republicans wrote the governor expressing support for clean air but unanimous opposition to the bill.

One of their major objections was the Legislative Analyst’s estimate that the cap-and-trade bill could raise gasoline taxes 63 cents in 2021. This is in addition to the 12-cent rate increase created with the approval of Senate Bill 1 in April.

Local State Sen. Jeff Stone signed the caucus’s letter to Brown. Stone is the vice chairman of the Senate Environmental Quality Committee, which approved AB 398 on party-line vote Thursday, July 13.

After the hearing, Stone released a statement in which he said, “We all want clean air and clean water. We are all environmentalists. But this bill saddles the working poor and the middle class with higher taxes and higher utility costs.  …”

The Howard Jarvis Taxpayers Association is continuing its litigation against the legality of the fire fee. Its position is the fee is actually a tax and, therefore, not legally enacted. HJTA expects another court filing later this summer.

After Brown’s announcement about AB 398, which suspends the tax, HJTA issued a press release in opposition to the legislation.

“The inclusion of the fire tax repeal in the ‘cap and trade’ legislation is intended to blunt opposition of pro-taxpayer interests. However, the proposal hardly makes the legislation taxpayer neutral. Costs to taxpayers as the result of California’s global warming policies are substantial and include higher prices for gas, electricity, and consumer goods.

“If the bill becomes law, the fire tax would be suspended immediately. However, the repeal would be prospective only, meaning it does not envision a refund to property owners who have, for several years, been paying the illegal tax.”

Jarvis said it would continue to pursue its litigation in order to obtain refunds for property owners who have paid the tax since its implementation in 2012. In Riverside County, about $12.8 million has been collected since the fee’s imposition. More than $300 million has been collected statewide.

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