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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: thearden@capitalpress.com

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