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Sen. Ted Gaines, R-Roseville, filed referendum papers 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, according to his chief of staff, Steve Davey. Republican lawmakers opposed Assembly Bill X1 29 when it 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. Gov. 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.

It 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 face a steep challenge to qualify the referendum for the June 2012 ballot. They would have to collect 504,760 signatures by early October once Attorney General Kamala Harris issues a ballot title and summary.

Harris spokeswoman Lynda Gledhill said that while Gaines filed referendum papers, the submission was incomplete. Harris' office is contacting Gaines to obtain the rest of the necessary documents. Once Harris receives all of the paperwork, she will have 10 days to provide ballot language.

Even so, Democrats may challenge Republicans' ability to overturn a budget "trailer" bill. Harris 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 Sept. 1.

Update (5 p.m.): Gaines filed the appropriate paperwork late Wednesday afternoon, Gledhill said. Harris has until Aug. 1 to issue a ballot title and summary.


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