Could Fires Influence Tax Decision?

Joel Fox
Editor and Co-Publisher of Fox and Hounds Daily

Firefighters are battling the Rim Fire near Yosemite, one of the largest fires in California history — but that’s not all. According to Cal Fire, the Department of Forestry and Fire Protection site that monitors fires in the state, as I write this column, 8300 firefighters are battling a dozen California wildfires.

The tongues of these fires lick against some policy and legal concerns the state faces. While the fires raise alarms about natural resources, the potential lose of life and property, and in the case of the Rim Fire, the water and power sources for the city of San Francisco, the fires will once again put a focus on the controversial fire tax.

You might remember the fire tax was passed as a fee a couple of years ago. It affects property owners in State Responsibility Areas for fire prevention. Board of Equalization member George Runner has written about the tax a number of times saying it is unfair and illegal. His latest post on the fire tax in Fox and Hounds is here.

The Howard Jarvis Taxpayers Association has filed a class action lawsuit against the fee, which passed with a majority vote. The taxpayers’ association’s suit argues that the revenue enhancement should be considered a tax and therefore required a two-thirds vote.

The courts will settle this issue. While the facts must determine the outcome of the lawsuit, one has to wonder how the surge of fire activity might influence judicial thinking.

We know the fires in Orange County influenced the outcome of the 1993 statewide election, which contained a sales tax measure for the purposes of public safety. The tax received an affirmative vote.  That was a vote of the people. The process, which leads to decisions by voters, is quite different than the impartial, cool deliberations by judges.

However, I’ve made reference on F&H before to the line used by turn-of-the-20th century humorist Finley Peter Dunne that the “Supreme Court follows the election returns” – often interpreted to mean that court decisions often adhere to current popular social or political trends.

Would the memory of a dozen blazes and hundreds of thousands of acres burned influence a court decision, especially if the fire tears into the popular Yosemite Park? Could the multiple fires help change the courts thinking on the necessity of a fee in fire areas?

One hopes that the courts will be able to separate the legalities of policy decisions from the drama of current events.

An unofficial tabulation of California wildfires indicates that the number has dramatically increased in recent decades. Fires have been a plague in the west for centuries. Although on the Nevada side of Lake Tahoe, the writer Mark Twain described a fire he helped start in his book, Roughing It.

While we wait to see if the increase in fires influences the judicial and policy arms of the state, let’s hope the brave firefighters in the field can control the flames quickly and protect lives and property.

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