$6 tax per acre proposed on rural landowners

By ALI BAY Capital Press Staff Writer



SACRAMENTO, CA — Rural landowners could get slapped with a $6 an acre tax to help balance the state’s budget.

The state’s Legislative Analyst’s Office has recommended legislators enact the fee, generating about $170 million, to fund about half of the state’s fire protection budget. No bills in the Legislature call for this fee. Such a fee would come through budget legislation, which won’t be official until Gov. Gray Davis proposes it.

The fees would be levied on land protected by the California Department of Forestry and Fire Protection. So-called state responsibility areas are covered in part by timber, brush or other vegetation serving commercial purposes, such as rangeland or timber harvesting areas.

In its budget analysis, the LAO even recommended the fee become permanent in several years.

“While we think a per-acre fee is a reasonable approach for the next two years, we recommend a permanent fee structure be developed and established by the Board of Forestry (to be implemented beginning with 2005-06) based upon further analysis of the various fee options,” the report states.

Ranchers’ groups and general farm organizations have expressed their opposition to the proposal.

“A lot of that ground doesn’t even generate $6 per acre... so it would bankrupt a lot of ranchers,” said John Gamper, director of taxation and land use for the California Farm Bureau Federation in Sacramento. “On really poor land.. owners can only generate a dollar to $3 an acre. The $6 an acre is some cases will be three times what property taxes are,” he said.

The proposed fee could have a huge impact on the state’s ranchers, said Susan LaGrande, vice president of government relations for the California Cattlemen’s Association.

“A $6 fee on somebody who has large land holdings, which it takes to graze cattle... is going to make a significant impact on the bottom line,” she said. “If somebody owned 5,000 acres, that’s $30,000. We’re really concerned.”

Last month, LaGrande and Gamper both testified at a hearing before legislators, expressing their concern for the proposed fire protection fee.

Although lawmakers have been discussing the proposal, farm leaders won’t have an idea if Gov. Gray Davis might seriously consider the fees until he releases his May revision of the 2003-04 budget.

“It just doesn’t make any sense, so I’m hoping it will go away,” Gamper said.

The state’s Department of Forestry and Fire Protection provides fire protection services directly and through contracts for timberlands, rangelands, and brushlands owned privately or by state or local agencies. The proposed 2003-04 budget slates $671.5 million for the department, 91 percent of which is to be used for fire protection.

While fire protection is the biggest part of the department’s budget, Gamper said many rural landowners don’t even need or use the state’s services.


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