Timber tax passes Legislature in last-minute scramble

SACRAMENTO — A proposed tax on timber came back from the dead early Saturday, passing after Gov. Jerry Brown’s aides muscled votes in the final minutes of a legislative session that stretched past midnight.

The bill would place a 1% tax on lumber sales to fund oversight of the timber industry. It also would limit companies’ liability for legal damages in cases of wildfires caused by their practices, restricting how much government agencies could sue for negligence.

The plan, first introduced in Brown’s budget proposal, became the object of last-minute gamesmanship in the Capitol because it required a two-thirds vote to pass, meaning two non-Democratic votes were needed in each house.


Sens. Bill Emmerson (R-Hemet) and Tom Harman (R-Huntington Beach) supplied the “ayes” in the Senate. Republican staff members said the senators were willing to support the tax because the bill ultimately would help the industry.

But the Assembly voted it down.

“This is very simple,” said Assemblyman Tim Donnelly (R-San Bernardino), an opponent. “We’re literally taxing two-by-fours, the very building blocks of our homes.”

Brown’s chief of staff, Nancy McFadden, asked Assembly Speaker John A. Perez (D-Los Angeles) for more time to rally votes, and he obliged. The governor’s team went to work, lobbying lawmakers outside the Assembly chamber for support and securing the votes within minutes.

Assemblymen Nathan Fletcher, a San Diego Republican-turned-independent, and Cameron Smyth (R-Santa Clarita) voted for the bill, giving it the bare minimum needed to prevail.

“I’ve been talking with the timber folks for months, and this was something the industry wanted,” Smyth said.

Democrats hailed the plan’s passage.

“We needed critical reforms to ensure sustainable forestry management and to protect jobs in impoverished parts of our state,” said Assemblyman Bob Blumenfield (D-Woodland Hills).

Federal prosecutors and Obama administration officials oppose the limits on damages out of concern that they could make it more difficult to secure money to pay for recovery from destructive blazes. The timber industry argues that prosecutors routinely sue for much more than the relevant land is worth.