Whither the Williamson Act?
One of the odder victims of the budget signed by Gov. Arnold Schwarzenegger is the Williamson Act which helps keeps farm and ranch lands from being sold and, potentially, developed.
Of the budget’s spending – some $84.6 billion in the general fund – the Williamson Act represents $27.8 million in state payments to reimburse mainly rural counties who offer property tax subsidies to farmers and ranchers. In return, the landowners agree to 10-year or 20-year contracts that keep their land in agricultural or open space use.
The program, authored in 1964 by John Williamson, a Kern County lawmaker, has preserved millions of acres of farmland and grazing land over the past 44 years.
At the beginning of 2009, some 16.4 million acres were covered under the act – about two-thirds of the state’s 29 million acres of prime agricultural land.
Two years ago, the Schwarzenegger proposed eliminating the program then reversed himself after learning that lands kept in open space, lower carbon dioxide emissions and greenhouse gases – one of the key goals of his administration.
Insider budget-deal scuttlebutt holds that the funding was wiped out by the GOP governor to punish Assembly Republicans for reneging on the budget deal by not approving the state’s taking of $1 billion in gas tax revenue earmarked for local government.
Environmentalists and others argue that Schwarzenegger’s vetoing of the Williamson Act funds only hurts future generations of Californians who the governor says he is trying to protect through his “green” policies.
“The merits of the (Williamson Act) program are not in dispute,” wrote several environmental groups, including the Sierra Club and the California League of Conservation Voters, in a letter earlier this year encouraging legislative budget-writers not to eliminate the program.
“The Williamson Act has been the state’s premier agricultural land protection program for more than 40 years and eliminating the subventions not only undoes decades of hard work to protect prime agricultural farmland and open space, but also undermines the very anti-sprawl goals that are embodied in SB 375 (by Senate president Pro Tempore Darrell Steinberg), which was signed into law only nine months ago.”
While the lagging economy and crash of the housing market lessens the pressure from developers on farmers and ranchers to sell, the lack of state subventions doesn’t negate the 10-year contracts.
Instead, California’s mostly rural counties will have to shoulder the property tax subsidies, tearing deeper holes in budgets already hammered by levels of unemployment far higher than in urban counties.
Butte County – 13.3 percent unemployment — needs to come up with $600,000 to cover its subventions. In Glenn County, which has an unemployment rate of 15.6 percent, the tab is $950,000, the Chico Enterprise Record reports.
The Merced Sun Star says the county – 17.6 percent unemployment — will add another $1.2 million to its budget shortfall as a result of the governor’s veto. Some 474,000 acres — nearly half the county’s agricultural land are under Williamson Act contracts.
“Farmers and ranchers will be more disposed to take land out of production simply for economic reasons,” said GOP Sen. Jim Nielsen who represents a number of rural counties including Yolo where John Williamson retired. “Counties will be more disposed to grant contract terminations and be less willing to allow new or extended contracts.”
The Schwarzenegger administration’s response has been muted:
“Suspension of Williamson Act subvention payments to local government is an unfortunate, but not unexpected, result of the state’s fiscal constraints, the state Department of Conservation, which administers the program, says on its webpage. “While subvention payments have been customary for many years, they have never been guaranteed.
“The Department doesn’t anticipate a mass exodus from the program. Once the economy rebounds, the Department is hopeful that subvention payments will be available again.”
Filed under: Budget and Economy
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