Smoke, no mirrors

Just two months into fiscal year 2009-10, California’s state government has already spent $107 million of the $182 million budgeted in the emergency firefighting fund. Gov. Arnold Schwarzenegger surely is casting one of those bittersweet, “I told you so” looks across the Capitol, because setting up a $500 million reserve for natural disasters was one of the reasons he gave for the line-item vetoes that members of the Legislature have started to undo.

What disturbs us more than this latest harbinger of red ink is the system behind it. Cal Fire gets funding from taxpayers statewide, but a relative few actually gain direct benefit from the service. Most of us get our fire protection from our municipal fire departments. Only people who live in outlying areas rely on Cal Fire to respond to blazes threatening their homes.

We are happy to pay our share for preserving our forests, but why should we also bear the brunt of the expense for people who opt for a rural existence? Shouldn’t a surcharge or parcel tax be part of the cost of their choice to live where fire danger exists?

Ironically, as Dan Walters pointed out recently in The Sacramento Bee, some of the biggest opponents to the idea of a parcel tax are Republican lawmakers from inland—i.e., wildfire-area—districts. They say the state has a spending problem, not a revenue problem, yet they have no qualms about authorizing large sums for Cal Fire without asking their constituents to pay their fair share. Talk is cheap; firefighting isn’t.