UPDATE 10:45 a.m.: The state Senate approved AB 1265 in a 31 to 0 vote this morning. The Assembly is expected to take up the bill on Tuesday for concurrence on amendments made by the Senate. If approved, it will then go to Governor Brown.
A coalition of farmer and ranchers is making a last ditch effort to save a popular land conservation program. The state has cut funding for the 46-year-old Williamson Act. Now, it’s up to counties to continue it.
About 15 million acres, half of California’s farm and ranchland, is enrolled in the program. In exchange for agreeing not to develop their land, farmers and ranchers get a tax break on those acres. Historically, the state has paid counties back for the lost tax revenue. Now, that funding is gone.
“The Williamson Act is one of the best things to help farmers stay in farming,” says Paul Wenger, president of the California Farm Bureau Federation. “It’s a very, very important land conservation program.”
Supporters of the program have battled for several years to continue state funding. Both Governor Schwarzenegger and Governor Brown proposed cutting the program’s $35-40 million dollar budget. In March, a stop-gap bill (SB 863) to provide the program with $10 million was defeated in the state legislature.
Recently, eight counties, including Yolo, Stanislaus and Merced, have developed a workaround to keep the program going. Farmers and ranchers typically sign 10-year contracts with counties under the Williamson Act. Instead, counties have shortened the contract length by 10 percent in return for a 10 percent property tax increase from farmers and ranchers.
Counties lost authorization to continue the workaround in March when the bill was defeated.
“We said ‘you can’t even give the government money.’ That’s the joke,” says Wenger. “We took this budget item off the budget and put it on the backs of farmers and it has still been cut.”
The state senate is now considering AB 1265, a bill that would re-authorize counties to use this process. Counties say the bill needs to pass by the end of Friday, when they close county tax rolls and prepare to send out new property tax bills.
The Williamson Act has seen broad support from both the farming community and environmental groups, who say the program preserves open space and wildlife habitat. (For more, check out this QUEST story).
Gary Caseri, Agricultural Commissioner for Stanislaus County, says while development pressure has been low recently due to the economic downturn, he sees it returning. “The growth pressures will be back. It’s just a matter of time.”
Caseri says it will fall to their county government to decide if they can afford to continue the conservation program. For many counties, he says it would be a stretch. “The budgets for a lot of counties don’t look good. It’s a bleak picture. There’s going to be a lot of pressure for counties to get out the Williamson Act entirely.”