In California, water flows toward money. Money also flows toward money, with the understanding that most of the money and power is concentrated in certain urban regions, especially Los Angeles and the Bay Area. Here’s one way that plays out: When the state government takes actions that can reduce revenues to local governments, state leaders won’t feel much concern if those local governments are out in lightly-populated rural areas with few voters. One of those revenue-reducing actions over the decades has been the otherwise-worthy effort by the state to buy up certain properties that can be managed as wildlife refuges.
Not surprisingly, a lot of that habitat is in rural counties. And once private property becomes state property, then the local county government can no longer collect property tax on it.
Starting in 1949, California’s state government compensated rural counties for such losses by paying with a program dubbed “Payment in Lieu of Taxes.” But then times got tough, costs for other stuff increased, and more than a decade ago, the state government just stopped paying its Payments in Lieu of Taxes. So rural counties coped, in part by laying off employees. The Regional Council of Rural Counties, which advocates on behalf of rural California counties, says the state is about $19 million behind on its obligations under this program.
Now, a bill by State Senator Lois Wolk (D-Davis) and Jim Nielsen (R-Gerber) seeks to appropriate money to 36 counties for those unpaid amounts. The bill, SB 1410, would both get caught up on the $19 million in back payments now due and also allocate $2 million per year to give counties their Payments in Lieu of Taxes in the future.
It is a nice gesture by Wolk and Nielsen. But will it pass? Rural counties are something like 6 percent of California’s population. So if they get treated like the Districts portrayed in The Hunger Games, well there really isn’t much of a political price to pay.