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Morrell Seeks End to Fire Fee

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Sen. Mike Morrell

Posted: Thursday, February 19, 2015 12:00 am

In an apparent move to call the bluff of Gov. Jerry Brown and the Democrat majority in the state legislature, Sen. Mike Morrell (R-Rancho Cucamonga) has introduced a bill to repeal the state’s four-year-old annual fire fee on rural property owners.

SB198, introduced on Feb. 10, is one of the shortest bills in recent memory, containing just 19 words. It reads, “Chapter 1.5 (commencing with Section 4210) of Part 2 of Division 4 of the Public Resources Code is repealed.”

If approved, the bill, of which Assemblyman Jay Obernolte (R-Big Bear Lake) is a principal co-author, would end the collection of the fee, approved by the legislature in 2011 as a means of restoring cuts made to the Cal Fire budget, which helped balance the state’s budget.

Its critics claim that because portions of the fee are spent on general government operations, and not just specific services, it qualifies as a tax and thus required a two-thirds approval by the legislature, something that did not happen.

The Howard Jarvis Taxpayers’ Association has filed suit in Sacramento Superior Court in an effort to have the fee declared a tax and thereby invalidated by a judge. That lawsuit is still pending.

“While the legality of the fire tax is more than questionable, it is also fundamentally unfair,” Morrell said in a statement. “It forces a small percentage of Californians to pay a disproportionate share of fire prevention services.”

Morrell also said some 98 percent of the homes in state responsibility areas, where the fee is charged, “are within areas already covered by local fire districts or county fire departments. As a result, many of these property owners are essentially being double-taxed without any appreciable increase in the services provided.”

As a concession to those owners, a cleanup bill enacted after the fee’s establishment granted them a $35 discount. The full fee, originally set at $150 a year, has since increased because of inflation to slightly more than $152.

Morrell has previously attempted to repeal the fee. While still a member of the State Assembly he introduced AB124, in 2013. His bill cleared its first committee hearing but was killed in the Assembly Appropriations Committee, his press release states.

“The Governor and Democrat leaders claim that the state’s finances and the overall economy are strong,” he said. “If this is truly the case, they should scrap the fire fee. But unfortunately, the bills keep landing in mailboxes of residents in the mountains and high desert. I will continue to work until the tax is repealed.”

Unless California’s overall financial condition has improved dramatically in the past year, however, the representations Morrell says Democrats are citing may be overly optimistic. A George Mason University paper on State Financial Conditions, published in January 2014, ranked California as fifth worst of all 50 states in its overall fiscal status.

On a scale where negative numbers speak ill of a state’s long-run prospects for solvency, California scored -2.67, trailing only New Jersey, Illinois, Connecticut and Massachusetts. With a +5.84 ranking, Alaska was rated as having the strongest state finances in the union, with South Dakota, North Dakota, Nebraska and Wyoming—all Midwestern states— having positive numbers.

The underfunding of state and local pensions was a key factor in the poor rankings of the five lowest-performing states, the 40-page paper, by Dr. Sarah Arnett, said.

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