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BOE Member George Runner

Government Stalling Tactics Slow Fire Tax Lawsuit

As Californians hope and pray for an end to California’s drought and dangerous fire conditions, I am thankful for the many brave men and women who put their lives on the line to fight fires throughout our state.

We’re also reminded that not one dime of our state’s so-called “Fire Prevention Fee” has helped fund this year’s firefighting efforts.

Someday a court will strike down the unfair and, I believe, illegal fire tax enacted by the Legislature and signed into law by Governor Jerry Brown in 2010.

But getting there is proving quite a challenge.

As you may recall, in 2012 the Howard Jarvis Taxpayers Association (HJTA), with my strong support, filed a class action lawsuit seeking to invalidate the so-called fee on the basis that it is really an illegally enacted tax.

Since then, California Department of Justice attorneys paid with your tax dollars have repeatedly sought to do everything in their power to slow the case down.

I’m told some of the state’s stalling tactics go far beyond what is typical of government attorneys involved in legal proceedings. These tactics include filing multiple demurrers aimed at blocking California taxpayers’ right to a class action — all of which were, thankfully, denied by the court. Government lawyers have also flooded HJTA’s small legal team with more than ten thousand unsorted and mostly irrelevant documents in a blatant attempt to drag out the discovery process.

The reason is simple. The state knows it’s going to lose this case, but it also has a financial interest in delaying that loss as long as possible.

By stalling, the state gets more time to send out more bills and collect more revenue. Most likely the trial date won’t be until after next year’s bills go out in the spring, which regrettably means rural Californians more than likely will receive yet another bill next year.

The Legislature should have repealed the fire tax by now. But it hasn’t. And when a bad law should be eliminated entirely, it’s hardly any consolation to see it merely amended.

Even so, it’s worth noting that Assembly Bill 2048 (Dahle, Chesbro and Gordon), which was recently signed into law, makes a number of small but important changes to the Fire Prevention Fee, including: (1) eliminating the egregious 20% per month penalty charged to fee payers who protest their fee and are denied and (2) ensuring that homeowners who lose their home in a natural disaster will be exempt from paying their fire fee bill that year.

I remain optimistic this “fee” will be declared an illegal tax and the money returned to taxpayers. Unfortunately, as a direct result of the state’s delaying tactics, when rural Californians will finally receive the just verdict they deserve is anyone’s guess.

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