A Call for Repeal of an Unfair Fee - Mountain News : Editorials

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A Call for Repeal of an Unfair Fee

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

For four years mountain property owners have had to pay the state each year for fire-protection services they already pay for through their annual property-tax bills.

Enacted in 2011 to backfill cuts in the Cal Fire budget, the so-called fire-prevention fee is, its opponents claim, actually a tax masquerading as a fee for services. Those services include measures largely provided already to mountain residents by the county, and do not involve actual firefighting, a service critical to our communities.

The contention that the fee is actually a tax—and therefore was adopted illegally—lies at the heart of a lawsuit, filed by the Howard Jarvis Taxpayers Association and currently pending in Sacramento Superior Court. It will likely to take many months to resolve.

In the meantime, there’s a ray of sunshine from Sacramento. Sen. Mike Morrell (R-Rancho Cucamonga), who represents the mountain communities, has introduced SB198, only 19 words long. If enacted in its current form, it would simply repeal the fee. Whether those who have paid it under protest, contending it was illegal, will ever have their money refunded awaits a determination by the court.

Morrell’s bill, jointly authored in the Assembly by Jay Obernolte (R-Big Bear Lake), is good news to mountain residents struggling to make ends meet. In a statement announcing his bill, Morrell cites claims by Gov. Brown and leaders in his party that the state’s finances and overall economy are strong.

If the state’s condition is improving, Morrell reasons, the financial woes that led to the adoption of the fee are no longer pertinent, and the fee can be eliminated.

We commend Morrell for his attempt to restore a modicum of fiscal sanity and integrity to our state government. But though the power establishment in California may claim the economy and the state’s financial picture are strong, a January 2014 report on state finances—the latest of its kind available online—suggests otherwise.

The George Mason University paper by Dr. Sarah Arnett, which uses 2012 data (the latest available) says only four states—New Jersey, Illinois, Connecticut and Massachusetts—have state governments in worse overall shape than California. Her research examined several fiscal benchmarks before determining the Golden State’s prospects for fiscal solvency were less than encouraging and concluding rising health costs and the underfunding of public employee pensions were largely to blame for the bottom feeders’ weak performance.

This is important because when politicians assert the state’s finances are in good order, but fail to acknowledge the unfunded pension elephant in the room, they’re either burying their heads in the sand or hoping you’ve buried yours.

But if your head is above ground, you’ll be able to see some disturbing numbers in the report. Take the issue of long-term liability per person in the state. In Nebraska, Arnett reported, each resident owes $296.80. In California, the number is $4,278.

Another online report, at www.statebudgetsolutions.org, published last November, shows California with the highest valuation of unfunded pension liabilities of any state, $754 billion of the nation’s total of $4.7 trillion. That’s equal to a per-capita debt of $19,671 per Californian.

Sen. Morrell’s challenge for the majority party, in effect to put up or shut up on the fire fee, could make for some interesting political drama over the coming months. But whatever the outcome on that front, we advise taking any reassurances about the state’s overall economic strength with a large chunk of salt.

After all, any state where public employee unions wield the clout they do in California, and where the public owes so much to government workers who no longer work, can’t truly be economically strong.

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