Santa Barbara Allowed To Levy Temporary Tax

Santa Barbara County will be able to increase penalties on drunk driving fines in order to fund emergency services as a result of a new state law that barely escaped veto by Gov. Jerry Brown (D).

In the waning hours of the legislative session last week, Brown issued a letter that criticized the method of generating emergency department revenues, although he stopped just short of blocking the bill that had received wide support in the Assembly and Senate.

AB 412 introduced by Das Williams (D-Santa Barbara) becomes law without Brown’s signature. And Santa Barbara County can on Jan. 1 begin collecting an extra surcharge on tickets issued for driving under the influence offenses. An extra $5 for every $10 of base fines can be assessed as a penalty to fund ED services.

For Santa Barbara Emergency Medical Services, which operates the only Level II trauma center on the coast between San Jose and Ventura, that means an extra $1.2 to $1.5 million annually. But the penalty assessments can only be collected in 2012 and 2013.

“It gives us a window, a breather of two years to come up with a better way of funding,” said Nancy Lapolla, director of the Santa Barbara Emergency Medical Services Agency.

Lapolla said county supervisors will be faced with the problem of how to pay for future ER services. A ballot measure to raise sales taxes to fund ED services failed in 2008.

“In this climate, it is very difficult to have a tax measure approved,” she said. “It will be up to the board and the community to look for other ways. We have already renegotiated ambulance contracts, implemented public health clinics, focused on prevention and reallocated tobacco tax settlement dollars.”

The bill was introduced last February by Williams in an attempt to avoid reductions in funding from the Maddy Emergency Services Fund, which was  falling victim to state budget cuts. The Legislature established the Maddy fund in the late 1980s to support hospitals and emergency room physicians adversely affected by increasing costs of treating uninsured patients.

Williams argued that, at the time the Maddy EMS Fund was enacted, Santa Barbara did not have a trauma center located at Santa Barbara Cottage Hospital and had elected to use that money to support the court system. Since counties lack authority to raise penalty assessments, Williams said state approval was necessary.

It allows an additional $5 penalty for every $10 in base fines collected for all criminal offenses and five vehicle code violations relating to driving under the influence. According to a bill analysis, about 269 programs across the state are funded by penalty assessments which can often quadruple the amount of the base fine.

AB 412 was approved by the Assembly on a 72-0 vote in June and by the Senate on a 33-2 vote in August.

However, Gov. Brown waited until Sept. 7 to issue a letter that found fault with the practice of using penalty assessments to fund emergency services that benefit a wider public than merely drunk drivers and their victims.

Brown’s letter said, in part:

“Increasing penalty assessments may have unintended consequences such as forcing people of modest means to choose jail time over paying sums they can’t afford…. Those who break the law should be fairly punished for their transgressions, but not be subjected to ever-increasing costs that are more properly the responsibility of the public at large.”

Williams acknowledged that the governor’s words of caution meant that the legislation should only be interpreted as a temporary fix for a long-term issue.

“It is vital for us to continue to provide support for the longest serving trauma unit in the region,” Williams said in a news release. “While many emergency rooms in our area have closed down, it is essential for the safety of each of us to ensure that those that remain, are adequately funded so that all of us can be sure to receive life-saving treatment in case of an emergency.”

Related Topics

Capitol Desk Health Industry Public Health