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California Lawmaker Proposes Steep Tax For Water Guzzlers

Photo caption: Glen Peterson, left, looks on as Dan Denning, a water conservationist for San...

Photo credit: Associated Press

Glen Peterson, left, looks on as Dan Denning, a water conservationist for San Diego County Water Authority checks sprinkler flow on his lawn as part of the county's "Watersmart Checkup" in Carlsbad, May 6, 2015.

California's worst water-guzzling residents and businesses could get slapped with 300 percent taxes on their bills under drought-inspired legislation that was proposed Tuesday but faces a tough path before it could actually affect local water bills.

SB789 would authorize local water departments to go to voters to encourage conservation by taxing overconsumption and using the money to fund local conservation efforts. It's the latest proposal to add teeth to mandatory conservation rules in California, calling for cities to slash water use by as much as 36 percent.

"You have some excessive users that are just blatant and say 'I don't care, and I will stand there all day long watering my lawn,'" Sen. Bob Wieckowski, D-Fremont, said in an interview.

The legislation needs support from a two-thirds majority, including from tax-averse Republicans, to pass the state Legislature. Then communities would need support from two-thirds of voters before they could impose such a tax.

Gov. Jerry Brown has ordered mandatory cutbacks for cities and towns to save water in case the drought continues. To help enforce his order, he is proposing a $10,000 fine for the worst offenders as part of his budget.

It's also unclear whether any local agencies would even seek to impose such taxes.

Local water departments have been reluctant to use their existing authority to levy fines for water waste. Only a tenth of water departments reported penalizing their customers in April, according to the latest survey by the State Water Resources Control Board. None asked Wieckowski to give them taxing authority.

Nevertheless, Wieckowski says his bill expands enforcement tools as water departments scramble to figure out how to hit wasters in the wallet. A court earlier this year struck down a city's water rates designed to encourage conservation, saying it violated voter-approved limits on utility rates.

Jon Coupal, president of the Howard Jarvis Taxpayers Association, said he doubts any community could manage to get two-thirds of voters to back a tax on their water bills.

"We are pretty confident it would be legal," he said. "I just think it would be political suicide."

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