Bill replaces one fire fee with another - Brian W. Jones

Bill replaces one fire fee with another

Key Assembly Democrats have introduced legislation to repeal a disputed $150 per-year fee on rural residents whose property is defended by the state fire agency, Cal Fire.

They propose to replace it with a broader 4.8 percent surcharge on property insurance bills paid by Californians across the state and direct the estimated $480 million generated to agencies that respond to emergencies, from fires to floods to earthquakes.

San Diego Assemblywoman Toni Atkins, a co-author and a Democratic leader, said in a statement that the money is needed because the state’s emergency response equipment “has failed to keep pace with growth and in many cases is aging and in need of replacement.”

The insurance premium proposal drew a sharp rebuke from San Diego County Supervisor Dianne Jacob, a leading local opponent of the existing $150 annual fire fee.

“The idea of an insurance surcharge is no better, because it would just swap one tax for another,” she said. “What the state needs to do is prioritize public safety and make sure Cal Fire is adequately funded without putting additional burdens on taxpayers.”

Cal Fire protects about 73,000 homes and 1 million acres in San Diego County.

Assemblyman Wes Chesbro, D-Arcata, the principal author of the bill, said the revenue would be earmarked for Cal Fire, the Emergency Management Agency, the state’s Military Department and local first-response agencies.

The premium surcharge on all types of property insurance — not just fire premiums — would come to about $48 annually, he said.

Federal budget cuts are making emergency dollars even more scarce, driving the need for replacement revenues, Chesbro said.

“California needs to be more proactive in planning and funding responses to natural disasters such as earthquakes, fires, tsunamis and floods,” he said. “A property insurance surcharge would ensure a stable source of funding for the sole purpose of planning and response to these disasters.”

Santee Assemblyman Brian Jones, a Republican, said he will oppose the measure. “In typical fashion, the majority party recognizes they passed a bad idea that unfairly taxes people in the rural areas. Instead of repealing that unfair tax, we are going to raise taxes across-the-board to do what the general fund is supposed to do.”

The introduction came on the same day Democrats in the Senate blocked Republican legislation to simply repeal the fire fee.

Gov. Jerry Brown does not have a position on the legislation, which will likely become part of the state budget talks later this summer. The legislation only requires a simple majority vote. Democrats control majorities in both houses.

Brown and lawmakers approved the $150 per year fee to help fill dwindling Cal Fire coffers by about $84 million a year. Bills have been sent to affected property owners for the past several months.

Chesbro’s Assembly Bill 468 is tentatively scheduled for a hearing before the Assembly Natural Resources Committee Monday.