Fire fee bill stalls as Legislature finishes its year


Issue Date: September 14, 2011
By Kate Campbell

Bills in the state Legislature that would have sharply raised fees for rural fire protection failed to advance last week, as members of the state Assembly and Senate reached the deadline for acting on bills that can be considered this year.

The failure of the two "state responsibility area" bills was a key result for agricultural organizations at the deadline, and California Farm Bureau Federation Administrator Rich Matteis said the legislative year ended "with some positive developments for California agriculture."

"We didn't get all of the bills farmers and ranchers need to support their businesses, but we made progress," Matteis said.

Farm organizations were also able to sidetrack a number of bills that would have harmed family farmers, ranchers and rural residents.

For example, Assembly Bill X1 24 and Senate Bill 1X 7, which could have charged landowners in state responsibility areas more than $3,000 for firefighting services, failed to advance out of legislative budget committees.

Matteis said this proposal would have replaced the already controversial $90 fee that was approved July 8 with a formula of per-acre and per-structure charges that would have placed a large burden of funding the CalFire agency on rural residents.

"We were really fortunate to have a broad coalition of agricultural organizations, local government, fire chiefs and business interests working against this ill-advised legislation, which would have been quite costly for many Farm Bureau members," Matteis said.

John Gamper, CFBF director of land use and taxation policy, noted the role of FARM TEAM members "who sent more than 800 messages to legislators, calling on them to reject the bills."

In another closely watched action, the Legislature passed SB 126 by Darrell Steinberg, D-Sacramento, that revises the state Agricultural Labor Relations Act.

Provisions in SB 126 address specific problems that have been claimed with the current law. Most notably, SB 126 would allow the state Agricultural Labor Relations Board, after setting aside an election due to employer misconduct that caused a "no union" outcome, to nonetheless install the union if it finds the misconduct "would render slight the chances of a new election reflecting the free and fair choice of employees."

Importantly, Matteis said, the bill leaves intact the secret-ballot election for unionization.

He also noted that recently amended legislation (AB 1313 by Michael Allen, D-Santa Rosa) that would have rewritten overtime rules for farm employees by establishing an eight-hour workday was sent to the inactive file and, therefore, is not moving forward at this time.

Meanwhile, several bills that Farm Bureau supported have been sent to the governor.

Sponsored by CFBF, Assembly Bill 634 by Alyson Huber, D-El Dorado Hills, would authorize the use of carbon monoxide to control vertebrate pests, such as rodents.

In the late 1990s, California passed a law prohibiting the use of carbon monoxide to kill any animal, in response to concerns raised over its use to euthanize dogs and cats in animal shelters, explained Noelle Cremers, CFBF natural resources director.

"At that time, there was no consideration of carbon monoxide as a safe, humane and effective control method for pests such as gophers and ground squirrels," Cremers said.

Applied with new and improved pest control technologies, use of carbon monoxide as a control measure would benefit farmers by cutting down on their crop losses and would add a pest control tool.

Cremers said that in addition to crop losses, rodents can damage irrigation equipment, produce hazards to machinery and livestock by causing unstable ground around their burrows, and create health hazards as carriers of diseases.

A measure that would provide a conditional water right registration process for small irrigation projects also passed.

Sponsored by the Wine Institute and supported by Farm Bureau, AB 964 by Jared Huffman, D-San Rafael, would provide a way for winegrape growers to obtain authorization for developing small, offstream storage projects. These projects could hold no more than 20 acre-feet annually and would be used for frost protection, while protecting fisheries.

SB 618 by Lois Wolk, D-Davis, would protect prime farm and ranch lands with regard to the siting of utility-scale photovoltaic solar projects.

Another Wolk bill would allow more producers of renewable energy, including farmers and ranchers, to participate in the California Net Energy Metering Program (see separate story).

Farm Bureau supported AB 228 by Felipe Fuentes, D-Los Angeles, that provides authority for employers to seek workers' compensation insurance coverage from the California State Compensation Insurance Fund for all of their employees, working in state or out of state.

On the other hand, several bills related to labor relations that Farm Bureau opposed also passed out of the Legislature and are being considered by the governor.

For example, AB 243 by Luis Alejo, D-Salinas, would require farm labor contractors to disclose information about the farmers and ranchers they work for on their workers' pay stubs.

AB 469 by Sandre Swanson, D-Oakland, would require an employer to issue an employee a notice at the time of hire that includes information such as the employee's rate of pay; the employer's address; the regular payday; and any allowances claimed by the employer for meal and lodging. This information, however, is already required to be disclosed to employees in writing and posted at the place of employment.

CFBF was able to help slow down a pesticide bill that would have placed extreme restrictions on how the Department of Pesticide Regulation conducts pesticide reviews, said Cynthia Cory, CFBF environmental affairs director.

AB 1176 by Das Williams, D-Santa Barbara, proposed four new 180-day deadlines to complete different steps in the pesticide risk assessment and management process.

"These complex scientific reviews take years to complete, as additional data collection and water and air monitoring are usually needed," Cory said. "Placing arbitrary 180-day deadlines on these activities would have made the process impossible and open to litigation by the environmental community when work was not completed in time."

To learn more about the status of specific bills of interest to family farmers and ranchers, see Capitol Alert and visit the FARM TEAM action center at www.cfbf.com.

(Kate Campbell is an assistant editor of Ag Alert. She may be contacted at kcampbell@cfbf.com.)

Permission for use is granted, however, credit must be made to the California Farm Bureau Federation when reprinting this item.