Similar bills by Assemblymen Mike Morrell, R-Rancho Cucamonga (Assembly Bill 124), and Tim Donnelly, R-Twin Peaks (Assembly Bill 23), passed on bipartisan 5-2 votes in the Assembly Committee on Natural Resources, but their prospects are already being questioned.
Revenue from a fee must be spent to benefit those who pay it. Otherwise, it is considered a tax requiring a two-thirds vote. The fire fee was approved on a majority vote in 2011.
Morrell and Donnelly contend that the fee is actually a tax. The Howard Jarvis Taxpayers Association has sued the state on those grounds.
"Because this fee was approved in a budget trailer bill, it did not receive proper scrutiny by the Legislature during the committee process. ... The public was once again denied their right to weigh in on this important public policy change," Morrell said.
The bills will next head to the Assembly Appropriations Committee.
Assemblyman Wesley Chesbro, who chairs the Natural Resources Committee, said there are issues with the fire fee, including that it doesn't account for whether the structure is a mobile home or a million-dollar home.
Approximately 800,000 owners of "habitable structures" are subject to the fee within areas where the state is financially responsible for prevention and suppression of wildfires.
Chesbro, D-Arcata, has proposed a measure to repeal the fire fee and replace it with a 4.8 percent statewide surcharge on all property insurance policies.
Chesbro said he pulled his AB 468 from Monday's committee calendar "so I can have more time to work with all parties involved to address some unresolved issues in the bill."
Chesbro, who voted for Morrell's and Donnelly's bills, expressed skepticism on their prospects. Chesbro said Morrell's bill has "no chance."
"The governor's not going sign a bill that blows a hole in the budget," Chesbro said. "What we really need is an alternative that fills that hole and also calls on the rest of the state and the rest of the Legislature to take responsibility for all emergency services."
PHOTO CREDIT: California Department of Forestry and Fire Protection crews work to contain a 2008 wildfire in Pollock Pines. Randall Benton / The Sacramento Bee