What Do Prop. 30 and the New Fire Tax Have in Common?

Politicians are big fans of schools and public safety but not for the same reasons that most Californians support these important services. Politicians like these issues because they can use them as excuses to increase taxes.

Take for example the governor’s Proposition 30 which would raise nearly $65 billion in new taxes and will be promoted by an expensive advertising campaign saying “It’s for the schools.” But it’s simply not true.

In a recent column on Fox & Hounds veteran political observer Joel Fox who is president of the Small Business Action Committee and allied with the Howard Jarvis Taxpayers Association in opposition to the massive new tax ripped the mask off of Proposition 30. Using independent sources he clearly demonstrated that it is not about the schools. Even the California School Boards association a backer of the new tax says they want to make it clear that the governor’s initiative provides no new funding for schools.

Unfortunately using false arguments and emotional issues to wring more out of taxpayers is common practice in Sacramento as hundreds of thousands of rural homeowners are about to find out. Last year at the governor’s request the Legislature approved what they called a “fire fee” to be imposed on rural homeowners with the proceeds going to CalFire for services like clearing brush. It was called a fee in a thinly disguised effort to circumvent Proposition 13’s requirement that taxes be passed with a two-thirds vote of each house of the Legislature.

According to law a fee is defined as a payment for a particular service that is provided exclusively to those who pay the fee — for example the use of a camp ground at a park. However this service is already provided by CalFire and is a general benefit to the state. The politicians’ intention here is to extract more money from homeowners’ wallets without spending any money on new services. The money formerly provided from the state budget to CalFire can now be diverted to other programs and projects — maybe even their bullet train to nowhere or to bail out California’s unfunded pension liabilities.

What we have here is just another phony excuse to raise taxes.

There are those who suggest that it is appropriate for homeowners in remote areas to pay more for fire suppression. However none of the new money will go to actually fighting fires and most of these rural homeowners already pay extra into local fire suppression districts that are actually responsible for fighting fires.

So Sacramento is about to hit these homeowners for a bill for $150 while none of them will be any safer from the risk of fire than they were before. However the issue is far from closed. While rural homeowners will have to pay the initial charge the Howard Jarvis Taxpayers Association is preparing to go to court to fight what is clearly a tax imposed in violation of Proposition 13. (Virtually everyone knows this tax is illegal and eventually will be stuck down by the courts. Indeed when he signed the legislation Governor Brown acknowledged that the scheme was of dubious legality).

And here’s the real tragedy: State law makes it virtually impossible to challenge the levy until it has been paid under protest. Thus while the suit will far more than likely be successful property owners will still have to pay and then file a “claim for refund.” So in true California fashion everyone loses. Taxpayers lose because they have to go through a burdensome administrative process to get their money back. The state loses because it has set up this costly program which will generate zero dollars for fire suppression and local fire districts lose because it will be harder to raise revenue for actual fire suppression services.

The only winners here are late night talk show hosts who will be given one more nugget with which to make fun of California and its systemically dysfunctional government.

In the meantime those who would like more detailed information on how to file a claim for refund as well as updates on the progress of legal proceedings should visit the HJTA website.

Jon Coupal is president of the Howard Jarvis Taxpayers Association —California’s largest grass-roots taxpayer organization dedicated to the protection of Proposition 13 and the advancement of taxpayers’ rights.