The topic today is fire fees. But it's really more than that. It's also about how policy is written and politics is played in California's capital.
On the surface, the new state fire fee passed by the Legislature and signed by Gov. Jerry Brown seems prudent and fair. It requires people who live in woodsy and brushy terrain, being soothed by nature, to pay a larger share of their fire protection costs.
But this legislation was written in such haste, without public scrutiny or Capitol vetting, that no one really is sure how it's going to work. It was cobbled together at the last moment before the Legislature's June 15 budget deadline in order to help balance the deficit-ridden general fund. And it smacks of Democratic payback for the Republicans' refusal to vote for Brown's tax proposal. Republican legislators represent most of the rural areas targeted for fire fees.
A couple of obstacles loom, however, before Sacramento can pocket the fee money. The Howard Jarvis Taxpayers Association intends to sue, claiming that the fee actually is a tax. Therefore it should have required a two-thirds vote in the Legislature, not a simple majority. The bill passed pretty much on a party line vote.
Republican state Sen. Ted Gaines, R-Roseville, is trying to generate support for a ballot referendum to repeal the fee. He needs to collect 505,000 voter signatures by Oct. 6 and concedes "it's an uphill battle."
The cost of collecting enough signatures will be at least $2 million. There's not enough at stake for special interests or deep-pocket types to bankroll such a venture. The proposed annual fee, per habitable structure, is capped at $150.
"Maybe it'll catch fire," Gaines told me, not really intending the pun. "It could take off with folks of a populist perspective. It's another intrusion of government coming at the people's wallet."
But let's back up. The notion of "beneficiary pays" -- or should -- has been kicking around for years.
In 2003, then-Gov. Gray Davis and the Legislature whacked the budget for Cal Fire -- the Department of Forestry and Fire Protection -- by $50 million. To replace the money, a $35 fee was imposed on each parcel of property likely to be serviced by state firefighters.
But there was such a rural stink, plus legal uncertainty, that the Legislature and new Gov. Arnold Schwarzenegger repealed the fee.
In 2009, Schwarzenegger pushed for a surcharge on all property insurance premiums to improve emergency preparedness, not just for wildfires but also for earthquakes, floods and potential terrorist attacks. Legally, however, the surcharge was considered a tax, requiring a two-thirds vote. Republicans naturally balked.
This year, Brown was desperate to find two Republicans in each house to vote for placing a tax measure on the ballot. The governor finally gave up just before the budget deadline.
To generate $200 million annually for the general fund, Democrats quickly voted to assess the "fire prevention fee" on an estimated 846,000 homeowners living in "state responsibility areas" -- primarily Cal Fire territory, covering one-third of California.
Again, the goal was not to strengthen firefighting. It was to seize $200 million from Cal Fire and replace it with the fire fee.
Simultaneously, Brown and Democrats saved $31 million by reducing state fire engine crew members from four to three.