Politicians play football with Williamson Act
State program will be cut by 20 percent if
proposed spending plan passes
Tim Hearden Capital Press July 23, 2009
John Gamper, right, a land use specialist for the California
Farm Bureau Federation, talks with Ned Coe, the Farm Bureauís
Northern California representative, during a meeting and barbecue
Monday, July 20 in Hat Creek.
|John Gamper, a
land use specialist for the California Farm Bureau Federation,
talks with his wife, Kaye, before speaking at a meeting in Hat
Creek on Monday, July 20.
John Gamper, a land use specialist for the California Farm
Bureau Federation, talks with his wife, Kaye, before speaking at a
meeting in Hat Creek on Monday, July 20. Funding for a state
program that facilitates property tax breaks for farmers is
destined to be a political football every year.
That's because most rural areas are represented in the state
Legislature by Republicans, and Democrats need something to hold
over their heads in exchange for their votes, so asserts John
Gamper, the director of taxation and land use for the California
Farm Bureau Federation's Governmental Affairs Division.
As has been the case virtually every year since 2001, the fate of
the Williamson Act has been in doubt until this week, when Gov.
Arnold Schwarzenegger and legislative leaders reached an agreement
on a spending plan.
The plan, which must be approved by lawmakers, calls for
Williamson Act subventions to be cut by another 20 percent after
they were slashed by 10 percent last year.
For as long as GOP votes are necessary to achieve the two-thirds
majorities needed to pass budgets, rural boons like the Williamson
Act will be subject to threats, Gamper said.
"It seems like because it is a ploy to get a Republican ask in the
budget process, we're doomed to fight this fight," he said in an
interview before speaking at a local Farm Bureau meeting and
barbecue July 20 in Hat Creek.
About 16.5 million of California's 30 million acres of agriculture
land are under the Williamson Act, which grants landowners lower
property tax rates if they agree to keep their land in ag for at
least 10 years. The state reimburses counties and schools for the
losses in revenue.
Each year since 2001, the governor or legislature has proposed to
cut or eliminate the Williamson Act subventions, Gamper said. In
six of the last eight years, there have been proposals to
eliminate the funding, he said.
Last year's 10 percent reduction reduced the reimbursement to
already cash-strapped counties from $39 million to $34.7 million.
Counties participating in the program are responsible covering
shortfalls in the reimbursements.
The California State Association of Counties has indicated that
counties could weather another 20 percent hit this year and still
get by for at least a year, Gamper said.
However, the Farm Bureau was prepared to urge counties to continue
the program even if state funding had been eliminated, he said.
Such a request would be a tall order, said Mary Pfeiffer, Shasta
County's agriculture commissioner.
"I know they (county supervisors) understand its value and
importance," Pfeiffer said. "But the reality is that things are
just ugly all over."
State lawmakers should realize that if farmland is converted to
housing, it could end up costing California a lot more than the
money it spends on the Williamson Act, Gamper said.
If even 10 percent of the lands currently under the Williamson Act
were developed at five units per acre, the state would be
constitutionally required to give out $500 million in homeowners'
property tax exemptions, he said.
Part of the Farm Bureau's job will be to educate lawmakers about
why the Williamson Act is important to California, he said.
Staff writer Tim Hearden is based in Shasta Lake. E-mail: