Governor Schwarzenegger recently proposed that every California home owner and business owner pay a new 1.25 percent tax on their property insurance – a $125 million tax increase – to pay for what he says will be improved firefighting efforts statewide, but many of us believe that it will largely go to backfill cuts the administration has proposed at CALFIRE.
Having served my community as a volunteer firefighter for 29 years, fire protection and prevention are of tremendous importance to me, but this new fire tax plan is both unfair and unnecessary for our state.
The Governor’s administration claims that the fire tax is necessary to prevent cuts to the Department of Forestry and Fire Prevention’s budget, also known as CAL-FIRE, in light of our state’s $14.5 billion budget deficit. I believe, however, that Californians send enough of their hard earned money to Sacramento.
Californians pay enough in taxes every year to support fire protection when paying their property tax bills. Many communities also pay assessments – approved by local voters – dedicated specifically for fire protection in their community. In my home county of Riverside, we already contract with CALFIRE for our fire protection services, and this new tax would result in us paying twice for their services. Builders of new homes and buildings also typically pay local governments for new fire stations to serve a growing population.
I am especially troubled by efforts to push through what is clearly a tax increase on a simple majority vote by calling it a “fee.” Whether something is considered a tax or a fee is more than a choice of words in Sacramento – it makes a big difference in the State Constitution.
A fee must have a connection between the fee charged and a direct service provided, otherwise it would be a tax increase. In this case, there is no direct relationship between those would pay the new tax on premiums (every California property owner) and those who would receive the benefits (only those who live in wildfire areas). Urban and suburban residents will pay the overwhelming majority of the tax to subsidize those living in the backcountry, and counties and communities already paying their fair share of fire protection will subsidize those that don’t.
Even state Insurance Commissioner Steve Poizner is opposed to this proposal, saying that violates the State Constitution and will likely be thrown out in court. However you slice it, this so-called fee is a tax and should be subject to a two-thirds vote of the Legislature or a vote of the people.
State spending has increased by 40% over the past four years, and taxpayers should not be frightened into paying a fire tax just because the majority party has continued to make poor spending choices for too long and refuses to cut wasteful government spending.
I hope lawmakers will join me in rejecting the fire tax and go back to the drawing board to find more responsible solutions to get our deficit under control without raising taxes.