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Gaines digs in for fight against wildfire fee as governor retrenches

By: Gus Thomson, Journal Staff Writer
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A move by Gov. Jerry Brown to seek changes to a controversial $150 annual wildfire fee for rural residents won’t alter state Sen. Ted Gaines’ resolve to stop it. The wildfire protection fee, which will affect tens of thousands of rural Placer County residents, is expected to generate $200 million annually. But its implementation ran into a snag this past week when the Board of Forestry and Fire Protection learned that the funding is earmarked for local fire-prevention programs – not the state Department of Forestry and Fire Protection firefighting efforts. The $200 million annually was supposed to help balance the California budget by replacing money the state took from the department. Gaines and other Republicans and anti-tax groups have fought what they consider an illegal tax. Gaines re-iterated that stand Friday, stating that the budget move should have required a two-thirds majority vote that is required for tax increases instead of the simple majority it received. Gaines is working with other opponents to mount a referendum drive to defeat the fee in a statewide election. He said the Republican Party and tea party members are also part of the group seeking a rollback. And the Howard Jarvis Taxpayers Association is ready to take the state to court on the wildfire fee but would have to wait until it’s imposed, Gaines said. The fee could start being applied to an estimated 850,000 properties statewide on Jan. 1. “It sounds as if the governor is working on suggesting another piece of legislation,” Gaines said. “I’ll continue to work hard on the referendum.” H.D. Palmer, spokesman for the governor’s Department of Finance, said Brown will seek to amend the law when the Legislature returns from its summer recess this week. Brown’s efforts follow revelations reported by The Associated Press that proceeds from the fee must go to local fire-prevention efforts through local fire districts, fire councils or the California Conservation Corps – not the state fire department. George Gentry, chief operating officer of the Board of Forestry, told The Associated Press that will leave the department with a $50 million budget cut this year and $200 million in future years. Brown raised the possibility of problems when he signed the bill into law last month, saying lawmakers need to make some changes. South Lake Tahoe resident Robert Karkheck would be paying the fee, which he said is a reasonable cost of living in a scenic area. His was one of 254 homes destroyed by a fire four years ago that cost $140 million in property damage. “I don’t like it if they’re going to take money away from the fire people,” Karkheck told AP. “I should think it would be the other way around.” Gaines, R-Roseville, a leading critic of the rural fire tax, said the revelation that the state’s firefighting effort could be harmed is another reason to repeal the law. “You’ve also got this issue of double taxation when you’ve got homeowners paying for fire protection at a local and state level,” Gaines said. The Associated Press contributed to this story.