Referendum Filed on Fire Fee

Senator Ted Gaines (R-Roseville) filed referendum papers this past Wednesday to overturn a new law requiring rural homeowners to pay a fire fee.

Gaines is working with the California Republican Party on the referendum effort to overturn Assembly Bill X1 29, which cleared the Legislature last month by a majority vote.

The proposal would charge rural homeowners as much as $150 annually to pay for state fire prevention services, raising an estimated $50 million this fiscal year. Governor Jerry Brown signed AB X1 29 earlier this month but said lawmakers needed to clean up the law so that funds could be used for firefighting rather than preventative measures.

The measure would apply to 850,000 residential structures outside city boundaries or federally protected areas for which the state is responsible for fire suppression. Most are in parts of the state represented by Republican lawmakers.

Gaines and the state Republican Party would need to collect 504,760 signatures by early October in order to qualify the referendum for the June 2012 ballot. The Attorney General’s office has until August 1st to issue the title and summary. 

However, Democrats may challenge Republicans' ability to overturn a budget "trailer" bill. The Attorney General’s office cleared on Monday to gather signatures to reverse a new online sales tax collection law, but Democrats have suggested they would ask the courts to rule on whether budget bills were subject to referendum.

The fire fee faces multiple threats. Jon Coupal of the Howard Jarvis Taxpayers Association said Tuesday his group believes the fire fee is a tax that required a two-thirds vote of the Legislature. He said his organization intends to sue, though the timing may be tricky because California generally requires a plaintiff to have paid a given fee before challenging it. Under AB X1 29, the Board of Equalization is not required to establish the fee program until September 1st.