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California Farm Bureau Federation Friday Review


SB 178 Darrell Steinberg (D – Sacramento): New year, new legislative session, new Senate Water Committee chair, new author, SAME GROUNDWATER BILL. In the past two years, Governor Schwarzenegger has vetoed two bills, SB 820 and SB 1640, authored by former Senate Natural Resources and Water Committee Chair Senator Sheila Kuehl (D – Santa Monica), that would have established new statewide groundwater monitoring and reporting requirements along with significant new costs and regulations in many agricultural areas of the state. California Farm Bureau, County Farm Bureaus, and Farm Team members throughout the state were instrumental in securing these critical vetoes.

This year, the new Senate Natural Resources and Water Committee Chair is former Assembly Member and newly elected Senator Darrell Steinberg. Senator Steinberg has introduced SB 178, which is essentially the same statewide groundwater monitoring and reporting bill that the Governor vetoed last fall. Farm Bureau remains opposed to the bill, and has held initial meetings with the Senator’s staff to investigate whether it will be possible this year to develop a different approach. This would help agricultural groundwater users defend their overlying groundwater rights, particularly in areas which are experiencing rapid residential development, by focusing on those areas of the state with the most intensive groundwater uses and urban development pressures, where the state has a legitimate role in water supply or grant funding, and where the state and groundwater exporters and non-overlying users provide appropriate resources for any new monitoring that the state would determine is necessary.

The bill has not been officially set for hearing yet, but Farm Bureau expects it will be heard in the Senate Natural Resources and Water Committee on Tuesday, March 27th.

She’s baaack and she still wants to tax you off your land. The Legislative Analyst’s Office (LAO) has once again proposed that the Legislature levy “fees” on landowners who “receive private benefits” from the Department of Forestry and Fire Protection (CDF) in the State Responsibility Areas (SRA). In a report to the Assembly Budget Subcommittee No. 3 on Natural Resources and Environmental Protection, the LAO outlined a complex set of interrelated reasons for the 83 percent increase in CDF’s fire protection budget in the last decade ($475 M to $869 M). It will balloon to $1.2 B in 07-08. Yet her suggested solution remains incredibly simplistic: arbitrarily charge landowners a per-acre and/or per house fee to help recover state costs.

Increased labor costs, changes in wildland fuel conditions, and increasing residential development in the SRA have all contributed to the rising costs of fire protection according to the LAO. For example, a 30 percent increase in full-time employees, a 71 percent increase in planned and unplanned overtime as well as a significant increase in wages and benefits have driven up compensation costs. Fire suppression activities, drought, insect infestations (and perhaps lack of management on government owned lands) over the last century have left much of the state’s forest ands filled with dead, dying, downed trees and filled with heavy undergrowth. There has also been a 15 percent increase in housing units in the SRA in last 15 years. There are also complicated mutual aid, contract county, and so-called Schedule A and Amador agreements that could be jeopardized by a state imposed levy. CDF also raised a red flag that the state could be responsible reimbursable mandate if the state attempted to realign these agreements and previously negotiated MOUs.

To the LAO the answer remains obvious: simply decide that you want to raise half of CDF’s General Fund fire protection budget, $317 M, and devise a method to extract it from SRA landowners. This arbitrary determination of a level of benefit would be accomplished by one of three options in the recommended “fee structures:” impose a $10 per-acre charge, impose a per-acre charge of $8 plus $74 per housing unit (this reflects an 80/20 funding split between land and houses), or a $5 per-acre charge plus $184 per housing unit (reflecting a 50/50 split between land and houses).

Farm Bureau and several other statewide resource landowner groups, including California Forestry Association and the California Cattlemen’s Association, voice strong opposition to the LAO’s recommendation. We were also pleased to see that the labor organizations representing the fire fighters and the Sierra Club also stepped up and argued against the fees due to fears that it would just lead to greater residential development in the SRA.

Perhaps the most troubling aspect of Wednesday’s budget Subcommittee hearing was the tacit support given to the LAO from the Governor’s Department of Finance. The state’s official bean counters noted that the proposal could have merit considering the dramatic increase in CDF’s wildfire protection costs. Farm Bureau and the other opponents to the new SRA fee proposal are drafting a coalition letter and will be communicating our concerns to Governor Schwarzenegger as well.

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