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California tax official criticized for fighting rural fire fee

SACRAMENTO — One of California's top elected tax collectors is facing criticism for his high-profile campaign to block a controversial fee that Democratic leaders say he and the state board he serves are responsible for collecting, not opposing.

Republican Board of Equalization member George Runner says the Democratic Legislature and governor engaged in an "illegal money-grab" when they voted last year to charge rural residents whose homes are at risk from wildfires a $150 fee.

Runner has a website encouraging homeowners to appeal the fee. He has written and spoken out against it, and says he will join a planned lawsuit by opponents who argue it is an unconstitutional tax.

"I've opposed this new tax from the beginning, because I believe it is unconstitutional," Runner says on his website. "I intend to join a lawsuit asking the courts to halt this illegal money-grab as soon as possible."

Democrats including state Controller John Chiang, Senate President Pro Tem Darrell Steinberg and fellow Board of Equalization member Betty Yee say Runner, a former state senator who was elected to the BOE in 2010, has gone too far in opposing a lawfully enacted fee he helps administer.

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