Senate Bill 17, by Sen. Ted Gaines, R-Rocklin, fell on a 4-3 vote in the Senate Natural Resources and Water Committee.
Supporters wearing bright red T-shirts bearing the phrase "Burned by the Fire Tax" packed the hearing room and lined up to register their support, joining fire officials and advocates for taxpayers and homeowners. No one appeared to voice opposition.
The state Office of Legislative Council has questioned how the administration of Gov. Jerry Brown spends revenue from the fee, which is assessed on property in rural areas. Lawmakers approved the fee in 2011 on a majority vote, rather than the two-thirds vote required for new taxes. Revenue from a fee must be spent to benefit those who pay it.
Opponents of the fee have argued that it has been used for other purposes. The Howard Jarvis Taxpayers Association has sued the state on those grounds, arguing that the fee is in fact an unconstitutional tax.
But some committee members said the fee was warranted to guard against blazes spreading from rural areas where they are more likely to start.
Sen. Hannah-Beth Jackson, D-Santa Barbara, who voted against the bill, endorsed awaiting the results of the lawsuit before moving to a legislative fix.
"The issue of tax vs. fee, I'm sure the courts will straighten this out," Jackson said.
PHOTO CREDIT: Opponents of California's fire fee wait to testify at an April 9, 2013, hearing before a Senate committee. Jeremy B. White / Sacramento Bee